Rentrak or Nielsen? Why Broadcasters Are Choosing Between the Two

By Kevin Eck 

nielsen_rentrakThe Wall Street Journal attempts to bring some clarity to the difference between Nielsen and Rentrak.

FOX’s announcement it was adding Rentrak to its 18 owned stations Wednesday may have left some wondering if Nielsen was on its way out.

WSJ reports, for now, the difference between the two may be as simple as national versus local.


Nielsen, which has long been the industry leader for TV research, still provides the ratings currency upon which national TV advertising is bought and sold. Nielsen collects that data through surveys of a sample of U.S. homes.

But broadcasters, which have complained that Nielsen’s numbers understate their true ratings, can use the deals with Rentrak to put pressure on Nielsen. Typically when broadcasters hire Rentrak they also keep using Nielsen. In the case of Fox Television Stations, an insider says it struck its deal with Rentrak as it negotiates a new contract with Nielsen, but say one has nothing to do with the other.

But Fox’s statement about the Rentrak deal highlights its desire for a more refined audience measure. “We expect this will accelerate the long overdue progress toward an accurate digital measuring system in local TV, one based on a census, not estimates, and one that measures all screens,” Fox Television Stations chief executive Jack Abernethy said in a statement. The station group owns 28 stations in 18 markets.

In a statement, Nielsen notes that it has a “rich history with Fox working on all aspects of media measurement – traditional, digital and qualitative.” It adds that “We continue to offer metrics, developed with world-class measurement science, upon which the media and advertising industries transact with confidence.”

(Fox Television Stations is a unit of 21st Century Fox Inc., which until last year was part of the same company as Wall Street Journal owner News Corp.)

Also appealing about Rentrak is that it offers the ability to tie viewership to consumer buying habits, which can be a great advantage to marketers planning out local ads. Rentrak has struck agreements with cable and satellite providers to collect data from millions of set-top boxes in different markets. It matches that data with other data sets about consumer purchases.

With viewership data beyond age and gender in higher demand, Rentrak says it can offer marketers insights on everything from viewer political affiliation to their likelihood of purchasing a vehicle. Nielsen also has competing consumer research products that match their data with credit card, consumer package good, and automotive purchases.

Experts say that while Nielsen’s survey is unparalleled on a national scale, Rentrak on the local level can provide some marketers and TV companies with additional granularity on consumer habits they cherish.

“We essentially bought Rentrak for that capability, particularly focused on their automotive data,” said CBS chief research officer David Poltrack. “This allows us to report back to the auto industry on TV viewing patterns among people who are in the market for a car,” getting as specific as people who bought a luxury car four years ago and are looking again, Mr. Poltrack said.

“On the national level now, the [Nielsen] survey is still the transactional currency,” Mr. Poltrack said. “On a local level, the challenges are much greater for maintaining the quality of a sample-based survey.”