Nielsen Caves On 'Heroes' Loophole, Remains Committed To Multiplatform Ratings

In a rare act of public contrition, Nielsen backed off a controversial loophole enabling broadcast networks to report a single, unduplicated audience rating for programs that air multiple times with their commercials intact. The decision followed weeks of outcry from cable networks, some broadcasters and ad executives that the change, effective with the launch of the new broadcast season, was not equitable to some clients, and obfuscated the audience results of the individual airings of those episodes. But the decision is likely a temporary reprieve as Nielsen executives remain committed to finding new ways of integrating and aggregating audience data across the multiple platforms and occurrences that TV programming increasingly is viewed on.

"At some point in the night too distant future this is going to be the rule, rather than the exception," predicts Brad Adgate, senior vice president-corporate research director at big TV buying agency Horizon Media Inc. "People are going to want to see a single net rating for all the platforms a program airs on."



While yielding to client pressure to change its reprocessing policy for now, Nielsen Senior Vice President-Planning Policy and Analysis Pat McDonough told MediaDailyNews that multiplatform ratings are "going to get more and more complicated," and that Nielsen ultimately plans to devise methods for aggregating audience estimates across all the platforms a program is viewed on. It's already begun, she said, noting that last year Nielsen introduced a similar policy for creating unduplicated, or so-called "net" audience ratings for programs airing on video-on-demand systems. While those occurrences are still small, she said NBC already has begun doing that with its news programming on some Comcast systems, though the move did not generate nearly the attention that NBC's decision to report a single rating for two airings of the premiere episode of "Heroes" at the start of this season.

"Ultimately they're going to want credit for when their stuff is on the Internet, whether it is on iTunes, or, or,," McDonough said. "There's gong to be a transition here as we figure out collectively with our clients what pieces do your want to put together."

One piece a majority of Nielsen clients have decided not to put together is multiple airings of the exact episode of the same broadcast network TV series.

Cable networks cried foul, because Nielsen's systems currently do not enable them to reprocess ratings the same way. Broadcast networks that have dominant shows airing at the end of the week, also did not like NBC's decision to exploit the new reprocessing rule to take advantage of a top-rated show - "Heroes" - that airs at the beginning of the TV week on Monday nights.

Ad agency executives didn't like it because the policy omitted discrete ratings for each episode, making it difficult to conduct apples to apples comparisons on nights and against counter-programming..

Technically, broadcast networks can still do that on rare occasions, but Nielsen's new policy tightens the loophole in such a way that makes it impractical. Basically, any program that meets Nielsen's standards for being "reportable" has to be reported as an individual telecast. Among the criteria, are that a national TV show reaches at least 30% of U.S. TV households, and carries national TV advertising in it.

As a result, certain "sustainable" programming like commercial-free coverage of public service programming like Presidential addresses can still be processed that way. Recently, CBS aired a repeat episode of its "Kid Nation" series that diverted all of its national advertising inventory to local sales by its affiliate stations, making that show eligible for the new reprocessing rule.

But as a practical matter, it is unlikely that any network will be able to stage a similar stunt like NBC did with the single rating for the multiple airings of "Heroes."

A Nielsen spokeswoman said the original individual episode ratings for those two episodes of "Heroes" would not be released, and the show would remain a ratings anomaly for the 2007-08 prime-time season.

Going forward, she said Nielsen clients could utilize Nielsen's systems to create their own, unduplicated audience estimates for multiple airings of a show, but they would not be reported as Nielsen's official ratings.

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