Live, From the NFL

Taking a stand that has irked some ad buyers, the broadcast networks are refusing once again to sell National Football League ads using the C3 commercial ratings system that became the industry standard three years ago, instead sticking with live-program ratings.

The networks’ position continues the debate about whether or not NFL advertisers are getting shortchanged.

The C3 system measures the average audience for commercials in live programming plus three days of DVR playback; ratings tend to be lower and with sports there’s very little playback viewing to make up the difference. The previous ratings system measured audiences for the programs only.

A year ago, the NFL rights-holding networks — Fox, CBS and NBC — signaled they would switch to C3 ratings for football in 2010, provided the system was error-free in the 2009 season — which, according to Nielsen, it was.

In 2007, when it launched, and in 2008 Nielsen had problems measuring the CBS and Fox telecasts with C3. During the 2008 season, for example, Nielsen acknowledged that it made errors in processing the ratings for five NFL regional and national telecasts, as well as mistakes for a number of pre- and post-game shows, and pre-kick and post-gun segments.

Nielsen officials said the company had fixed the problems. Last week, a company rep said it succeeded in measuring all 2009 games error-free. “We didn’t have any problems in the 2009 season,” the rep said.

While the three broadcasters declined to comment, sources at CBS and Fox acknowledged the two networks had no evidence to refute Nielsen’s claim that it resolved its C3 issues. However, they lack confidence in Nielsen’s ability to provide accurate C3 ratings on a sustained basis. A key problem, they say: it’s complicated to sync up spots correctly within the complex web of regionalized feeds during Sunday afternoon telecasts.

Some buyers expressed outrage at the television networks’ refusal to use C3 ratings for football.

“Nielsen is no longer a valid excuse,” said the head buyer at one holding company shop, who asked not to be named. “It’s selfish and indefensible. Advertisers are getting screwed big time.”

Francois Lee, vp, activation director at Publicis Groupe’s MediaVest, said it’s critical  for the networks to move to C3 with football and other sports — if Nielsen can provide accurate ratings. But, he said, there is still an issue of whether Nielsen can do so. “We want to make sure it’s right,” he said.

Michael Parent, svp, national broadcast, at media shop TargetCast, agreed. “If Nielsen now has an accurate reporting system, we’re all for it,” he said. “We want to be as close to the real number [for viewing commercials] as we can get.” He added that he “can understand why the networks are pushing back on it because [C3] would probably only hurt their ratings.”

Others noted it made even less sense for NBC not to offer NFL buys on C3 because it has a single national game on Sunday night.

“We get the regional issues,” said a source at one major media shop. “But we’re pushing for C3 on the national games.”

Another source, one familiar with NBC’s thinking, said the network wouldn’t switch unless Fox and CBS did as well. “NBC won’t be held to a different standard,” he said.

Not all buyers are concerned with having the live programming ratings. “I don’t have a problem with the networks’ stance,” said one sports buyer at a holding company media shop. “If Nielsen can deliver it consistently, it’d be nice to have, but what I really want to know is what my audience number is in the game when my spot hits.”

And the head buyer at another big media shop said he was resigned to program ratings for the NFL. “It might be in the best interests of advertisers to have a C3 guarantee,” the executive said, “but there are certainly plenty of people lining up to buy it without one.”