The Great Ratings Debate

Nielsen Media Research recently announced plans to postpone the release of its new service that produces average ratings for commercial minutes. If you read the media coverage that followed, you might have gotten the impression that Nielsen’s plans to measure commercial ratings via its People Meter methodology is the tool the industry is clamoring for. You might also have come to the conclusion that various vested-interest groups such as cable networks, syndicators and—last but not least—media agencies are standing in the way of progress.

Everyone agrees that better television research is needed. Advertisers, who spend about $70 billion each year on TV ads, are rightly concerned about the return on their investment. Their questions have taken on justifiable urgency as TiVo and other DVRs allow Americans to zip through ads. The question at hand, however, is this: Do Nielsen’s Commercial Minute Ratings answer the questions advertisers need answered? Many think not.

Nielsen’s People Meter is designed to measure national program audiences. A continuous measure, it has the data to report individual tuning at various increments, which for the purposes of commercial ratings, is in one-minute intervals. It deals with national breaks, not local breaks; all local commercials are included in the program measure, not the commercial measure.

Additionally, People Meter is hamstrung by the fact that it doesn’t return a pure commercial rating measurement. Rather, it measures program minutes that include one or more seconds of national commercial time. Since pods often overlap minutes, true measurement would require Nielsen to measure second by second, not minute by minute. Nielsen cannot currently attain that level of resolution, and has no plans to achieve that in the near future.

Recently, TNS Media Intelligence made the case to the Advertising Research Foundation that it can provide more accurate data than Nielsen Media Research alone. The networks appear interested; however, TNS has the ability to only measure set tuning, not individual person’s tuning—an advantage Nielsen currently has.

Quoted in a The New York Times article is the 2005 American Association of Advertising Agencies’ and the Association of National Advertisers’ finding that on average only 5.6 percent of adults 18 to 49 years old actually skip commercials. This information was based solely on channel-switching behavior, not fast-fowarding or any other form of commercial avoidance. This data is of questionable value in today’s viewing environment.

Understanding commercial viewership is much more complex than the Nielsen People Meter and other existing methodologies can measure. Many would argue (and some could prove) that various factors affect viewership: the length of a pod and its position; the program that the commercial airs in; the brand and the category that it competes in; the commercial itself; frequency of exposure to the commercial; target audience; multitasking activities, etc. Our own viewing habits can give us insights into what may or may not be happening during commercials—we are indeed consumers ourselves.

The push for the Nielsen Commercial Minute Ratings now is about recycling old numbers, not an accurate metric to determine the number of viewers who saw a particular commercial. Good research is expensive, and up-to-date research design is critical in getting the answers to the questions we need. Nielsen and other companies already possess better methods of more accurately measuring commercial ratings. As an industry, we should urge that these be explored and more fully developed. We owe it to our advertisers. Perhaps it’s time to revisit the Passive People Meter.

(Nielsen Media Research is owned by Adweek parent company VNU.)