"It's one of the industry's little secrets: Sports got a free pass last year," says one veteran media agency buyer. "This year, there will be discussions about this in the upfront." Virtually all nationally distributed entertainment TV programs were guaranteed on commercial ratings plus three days of DVR playback, known as C3, starting with the upfronts of a year ago. Sports programs were exempt.
Sports TV networks and programmers defend their position to sell off the older program ratings metric. The primary reason is that Nielsen Media Research isn't ready for most sports programming.
"We are absolutely for better measurement," says Ed Erhardt, president of ESPN Customer Marketing and Sales. "Nielsen has not been able to measure sports programming well--although they have made some progress."
Last week, Nielsen sent a client notice confirming it would only be delivering program ratings--not commercial ratings--for the first week of CBS' NCAA tournament. That's because of the network's usual effort, which jumps back and forth between regional games and messes with measuring commercial ratings.
Nielsen said: "CBS has guaranteed audience levels to advertisers that bought time in the tournament on the basis of program ratings only. Accordingly, Nielsen will produce program ratings only for NCAA Tournament games are scheduled to air on CBS on Thursday, March 20 through Friday, March 28."
"We certainly would like to see live sports move to C3 as well, but the regional nature does present logistical problems, so we might have an apples-and-oranges situation," says Peter Gardiner, partner and chief media officer of Deutsch Inc.
While media buyers understand Nielsen's current limitations, they say other sports programming is not affected. "This is no reason why the Olympics, NASCAR, MLB's "All Star" game or "Sunday Night Football" can't be on C3," says another angry media-buying executive. "Sports networks won't do it because the marketplace is so hot, with advertisers paying high single-digit to big double-digit increases."
Here's another reason: commercial ratings are from 4% to 6% lower than their comparable program rating. Says the media buyer: "They would have to give out more GRPs in makegoods. What's the incentive for them to do it?"
Sports TV programmers admit that some sports programming could be pinned to commercial ratings--but it would affect their usual sales efforts in packaging sports TV shows to advertisers. "We are not going to do deals half on program rating and half on commercial ratings," said Erhardt. "Advertisers buy in packages, and quite frankly, I don't think advertisers want that."
It's not just regional college basketball or NFL football games that are a problem, says Erhardt. Commercials can get pushed around a live sports contest. Because of live sports action, commercials sometimes may not run for a half-hour or more. As a result, commercials can be bunched together in the later part of a game or event--which can skew average commercial ratings.
In addition, all the on-air informational clutter--bugs, snipes, crawls--on certain networks is playing havoc with Nielsen identifying commercials. Another veteran TV sales executive says their advertisers have plenty of in-game enhancements, as well as buying commercial time in the show. All that can unfairly skew a commercial rating.
Right now, Nielsen can't deliver weekly commercial ratings for some sports programs--something that is important to most sports TV programmers that need weekly data to monitor and adjust their advertising deals with marketers.
Still, Nielsen is working on fixing things. It is testing commercial ratings in the beginning weeks of the Major League Baseball season on Fox, according to executives. Fox wouldn't comment about this story, but an executive says the network may look to start commercial ratings after it concludes most of its NFL advertising selling later this year.
Executives at CBS and NBC were not available for comment at press time.