ARF Meeting Reveals Nielsen Ratings Data Flawed, Will Remain Unaccredited Until Next Year

Two startling revelations were made public Thursday afternoon during a TV industry research meeting at the Advertising Research Foundation's offices in New York: 1) A surprising amount of Nielsen's TV ratings data has been and continues to be error prone; and 2) An industry audit of Nielsen's new commercial minute ratings will not be completed until January, five months after it was originally expected to be completed. The disclosures, which were ironically made in a meeting room that the ARF has named the "Nielsen Boardroom," came on the eve of Monday's release of the first of Nielsen's new average commercial minute ratings - or so-called C3 ratings - which are the official market currency of the 2007-08 television season, but which will not be officially accredited for at least several months into season.

Anthony Torrieri, a representative of the industry's accreditation entity, the Media Rating Council, said audits of the TV ratings and commercial monitoring data Nielsen is using to create the new C3 ratings would not be completed until January due to delays caused by Nielsen. A vote on whether to accredit the system would come only after the audit findings have been reviewed and discussed by the MRC's Television Committee.



The disclosure was a stark reminder for many in the room that the billions of dollars in advertising buys negotiated during the 2007-08 upfront buying season were done so on the basis of unaccredited ratings data, and that those buys would also be posted with unaccredited data for a good chunk of the season. As vexing as that might seem for some, others apparently have no qualms. Early in the decision-making process that led to a consensus around C3 ratings as the new market currency, executives at Mediaedge:cia asserted that market currency data need not be accredited. Mediaedge:cia's Lyle Schwartz reiterated that position during Thursday's meeting. Independent of the meeting, Carat Senior Vice President-Director of Programming Shari Anne Brill Thursday afternoon issued a report officially endorsing C3 ratings as the new market currency. Carat's endorsement followed a similar proclamation by Magna Global's Steve Sternberg.

The endorsements are unprecedented, because this is the first time in the recent history of television advertising marketplace that Madison Avenue has bought and posted its broadcast and cable network TV time on the basis of unaccredited ratings.

Those positions seem especially daring, given some other information that was disclosed during the ARF meeting, especially the margins of error and discrepancy associated with Nielsen's data. Several cable network executives made presentations indicating that they routinely uncover errors in Nielsen's logs, and Jeff Stern, president of Star Media, a major third-party processor of Nielsen's data who services the cable TV industry, disclosed that 30% of the data files his firm receives from Nielsen is ratings data that has been corrected.

The ARF meeting, which was conducted under the auspices of the foundation's Council on Video & Electronic Media, was the last to be presided over by Tim Brooks, the council's chairman, and long-time industry executive, who is retiring as executive vice president-research at Lifetime Entertainment.

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