Ratings Error Chips Away At Nielsen’s Credibility

The glitch adds to the criticism that Nielsen can't keep up with modern media.

multiple screensNielsen has admitted that the broadcast network ratings it has been reporting for the past seven months are inaccurate, favoring ABC while having a negative impact on the others. Even though it looks like the discrepancy is a small one, the damage to the company’s reputation could be much greater.

According to the company, the error in viewing totals is between .1 percent and .25 percent. The degree to which this could impact the ratings outcomes for different shows is yet to be seen. For instance, TVNewser has long tracked the competition among news broadcasts. ABC had been celebrating a rise above NBC, the first in five years. A revision could take that away. In other cases, the numbers might change slightly, but the outcome — first, second or third — would remain the same. Overall, Deadline reports that many of the larger outcomes would be unchanged.

These small amendments can have an effect on big advertising dollars for the networks. Moreover, Nielsen has been fighting a battle over its ability to thoroughly track TV viewership at a time of great audience fragmentation. That this error was made and wasn’t caught for so long has got some in the industry very upset.

According to The New York Times, “…several television and advertising executives expressed degrees of anger and incredulity at both the incorrect ratings and the amount of time — seven months — it had taken to discover the problem.

Couple that with the fact that there are competitors like comScore and Rentrack that are promising a more modern approach to ratings tracking and you’ve got a one-two punch to Nielsen’s reputation.

Separate but related, it also casts a shadow on any of the numbers that ABC may have been celebrating, meaning ABC’s anger over the situation might be a little higher than the other networks. For all of the networks, it will mean the extra work of retracing the ratings footsteps.

Now that we know about the error, Nielsen has to go into recovery mode. The company says it will go back and re-calibrate the ratings from August 18, but the problem started on March 2. The company says they’ll address issues as the networks bring them up and NBC says, yeah, we’re bringing it up.

But more than anything else, what the company has to do is show that they’re not just going to correct the mistake, but that they’re looking to make the system less prone to these software issues and more nimble in its ability to track viewers where they go. Right now, Nielsen looks clunky and inefficient in a business that requires precision and a keen sense for what’s happening on the business side of the media world. The comeback on this is to take the whole business up a notch and bring that message back to executives in order to regain their trust.

Update: The revision has switched the ratings order for ABC’s World News Tonight with David Muir and NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams. TVNewser’s got the full story here.

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