Will We Ever Learn to Trust a Nielsen Rating Again?

mfXjziuRatings are Nielsen’s bread and butter, so you can imagine the upset when it was discovered that recent numbers may have been “misattributed.”

From the New York Times:

Nielsen, the television research firm, acknowledged on Friday that it had been reporting inaccurate ratings for the broadcast networks for the last seven months, a mistake that raises questions about the company’s increasingly criticized system for measuring TV audiences.

The error wound up benefiting one network, ABC, while negatively affecting the others, according to people briefed on the problem. In a telephone call with reporters, Nielsen executives would not confirm that it had resulted in added viewers for ABC, saying they could not discuss individual clients.

How does a company recover from such a taint? As one network insider said,

“This is the equivalent of an earthquake. When you can’t trust the ground you’re standing on, it’s disorienting.” Adding, “What else has gone wrong that we don’t know about?”

And as CBS research chief David Poltrack rightly points out,

“…the error rocks the industry’s confidence in Nielsen, making networks wonder if the company is paying close enough attention to its basic research at a time it is launching new initiatives to measure viewership on mobile devices or online video: “Why is it that Nielsen didn’t discover this? Why did we have to discover it?”

Aye, there’s the rub. Even though the errors were—allegedly—small, the damage to the company’s integrity is immense.

“It is very important to us that our clients know exactly how the numbers are calculated and that they work with us to identify any issues and help correct them,” said Stephen Hasker, global president of Nielsen. “Transparency is everything for us.”

Let’s hope Nielsen is paying more than lip service in its pledge of transparency, but even if they are sincere… is it enough? To use a phrase from the industry, stay tuned.