ESPN Gets Nielsen To Revise Its Data To Suggest Cord Cutting's No Big Deal

from the massaging-statistics dept

We’ve discussed for years that as an apparatus directly tied to the wallet of the cable and broadcast industry, TV viewing tracking company Nielsen has gladly helped reinforce the cable industry belief that cord cutting was “pure fiction.” Once the trend became too obvious to ignore, Nielsen tried to bury cord cutting — by simply calling it something else in reports. And while Nielsen was busy denying an obvious trend, it was simultaneously failing to track TV viewing on emerging platforms, something the company still hasn’t fully incorporated.

We’ve also been talking about how ESPN has been making the rounds, trying to “change the narrative” surrounding cord cutting to suggest that worries about ESPN’s long-term viability in the face of TV evolution have been overblown. Part of that effort this week apparently involved reaching out to Nielsen to demand the company fiddle with its cord cutting numbers, which ESPN then peddled to reporters in the hopes of creating an artificial, rosier tomorrow:

“On Thursday, ESPN reached out to reporters to let them know that cord-cutting isn?t nearly as bad as it sounds, and that the reason is the way Nielsen revised its pay-TV universe estimates. Nielsen (under client pressure) decided to remove broadband-only homes from its sample, but it didn?t restate historical data. It is now showing that, as of December, 1.2 million homes had cut the cord, a much smaller number than its earlier figure of 4.33 million homes for the year.”

Isn’t that handy! This of course isn’t the first time Nielsen has tweaked troubling numbers on demand to appease an industry eager to believe its cash cow will live forever. The irony is that the same industry that’s happy to gobble up potentially distorted data is simultaneously deriding Nielsen out of the other corner of its mouth as a company whose data is no longer reliable in the modern streaming video age. In a profile piece examining Nielsen’s struggle to adapt, the New York Times (and Nielsen itself) puts the problem rather succinctly:

“Yet Nielsen is established on an inherent conflict that can impede the adoption of new measurement methods. Nielsen is paid hundreds of millions of dollars a year by the television industry that it measures. And that industry, which uses Nielsen?s ratings to sell ads, is known to oppose changes that do not favor it. ?People want us to innovate as long as the innovation is to their advantage,? Mr. Hasker said.

Obviously getting a distrusted metric company to fiddle with data even further won’t save ESPN. The company’s SEC filings still suggest ESPN lost 7 million subscribers in the last few years alone. Some of these subscribers have cut the cord, but others have simply “trimmed” the cord — signing up for skinny bundles that have started to boot ESPN out of the core TV lineup. Similarly, studies have recently shown that 56% of ESPN users would drop ESPN for an $8 reduction on their cable bill. This sentiment isn’t going to magically go away as alternative viewing options increase.

BTIG analyst Rich Greenfield, who funded that survey and has been a thorn in ESPN’s side for weeks (for you know, highlighting facts and stuff), had a little advice for ESPN if it’s worried about accurate data:

“?If this is an important issue for ESPN, they should start releasing actual subscriber numbers rather than relying on third parties [Nielsen]. If they are upset with the confusion, let?s see the actual number of paying subscribers in the US over five years.”

Wall Street’s realization that ESPN may not fare well under the new pay TV paradigm at one point caused $22 billion in Disney stock value to simply evaporate. As a result, ESPN executives have addressed these worries in the only way they know how: by massaging statistics and insulting departing subscribers by claiming they were old and unwanted anyway. One gets the sneaking suspicion that’s not going to be enough to shelter ESPN from the coming storm.

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Companies: espn, nielsen

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Comments on “ESPN Gets Nielsen To Revise Its Data To Suggest Cord Cutting's No Big Deal”

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Anonymous Coward says:

Don't forget, ESPN's content isn't doing them any favors

Have you tried watching it in the past 10 years? It’s gotten atrocious. They report on celeb tweets like it’s news. They take time on Sportscenter to show people arriving at sporting events to highlight what they looked like as they arrived. I tried watching PTI a couple of months back and they seem to have shoved at least 15 mins of commercials into that 30 min show.

And then there’s their website, which has become unusable (and of course, there’s this kind of garbage:

So, former fans of the brand are driven away from the station and website due to horrid user experiences and the new fans they were hoping to pick up with these changes aren’t showing up. The only thing most who have cable tune into ESPN for anymore is live sports. So, they’re getting wrecked from every angle.

Rich Kulawiec (profile) says:

Re: Don't forget, ESPN's content isn't doing them any favors

And then there’s their website, which has become unusable

YES. It’s garbage. It’s horribly, incredibly bloated with photos, videos, Javascript, social media bullshit, all kinds of ridiculous junk that makes it take forever to load, eats all kinds of bandwidth, and chokes web browsers.

They should fire every web designer they have and start over with the understanding that the entire Internet is based on text. (It really is quite appalling how many ignorant newbies don’t grasp this rather simple point.) It should not be necessary to load 1.8M of junk in order to check a box score.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Don't forget, ESPN's content isn't doing them any favors

…It should not be necessary to load 1.8M of junk in order to check a box score…

AND leave it up for 24 hours or longer. I’m one who absolutely refuses to be connected 24 hours a day. (Maybe ESPN leaves it that long but my local sites – which all have the same bloat-loading issues – don’t always leave things up 24 hours.)

michael (profile) says:

Re: Re: Don't forget, ESPN's content isn't doing them any favors

“They should fire every web designer they have and start over with the understanding that the entire Internet is based on text.”

I guarantee you that the designers don’t like it any more than you do.

This is what happens when people who don’t know anything about the web are put in charge of making website decisions.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re:

They can artificially keep those numbers high temporarily by raising per customer costs to offset the loss of subscribers, but it’s a delaying tactic at best as it’ll just make the problem for them even worse long term as more people bail out the second they can thanks to the higher costs.

They either adapt or fold, and at this rate I’m pretty sure by the time they admit that there’s a problem it’ll be too late for them.

Pixelation says:

ESPN: “Hey Nielsen, we don’t like your numbers, they making us look fat.”

Nielsen: “Well, let’s see what we can do. (Tappity, tap, tap, tappity, tap) Okay, we cut away those nasty cord cutters for you. They no longer exist! Ooooh, you look so good!”

ESPN: “Whew! Don’t let that happen again. If anything else comes up, keep cutting.”

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:'s_New_Clothes

Do not trust those who only say the things that get them something from you. If they are willing to “change” reality to suit you they do not care about you.

There are to many companies invested in telling their clients what they want to hear, not the truth. This causes great harm in the world as decisions are made based on these “facts”. While the Emperor is excited for how breezy the new clothes feel, he can not convince everyone he isn’t naked. Your high priced advisers only want to keep being paid and will nod sagely, remarking on how wonderful the clothes are, while collecting their gold.

Nielsen should be considered an untrustworthy source. They are willing to alter the data to make a client happy, not to impartially report the facts. As the data Nielsen provides helps set advertising rates, perhaps corporations should question paying rates where the price is set by a “3rd Party” who will buckle and report what they are told to report.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: 85% of statistics are made up on the spot

There is this old joke:
How do you tell a mathematician from a statistician from an accountant?
Ask them “What is two plus two?”.
The mathematician answers “four”.
The statistician answers “Well depending on circumstances, about four”.
The accountant asks “What do you want it to be?”.

These days, companies are run by accountants.

Wickedsmack (profile) says:

So what's next?

I think this is also a testiment to the the increasing production quality of channels readily available over the air these days (ABC,NBC,FOX). Couple that with bite size snippets of highlights and quick conscise analysis readily avaiable on websites not called ESPN.Com, its the perfect storm. I cut the cord yesterday, my wife is perfectly happy with basic Sling TV for $20 (Lifetime movies…sigh…you know). I found it curious with all the talk of ESPN eventually having to go to a paid model for streaming online content that ESPN is on the basic lineup for Sling.
They can massage the numbers all they want, but they still answer to shareholders and when the money coming in isn’t there to justify how they do business, heads will roll at the top and they will be forced to adapt a new paradigm if they want to continue rule college football and the SEC.

Rich Kulawiec (profile) says:

Re: So what's next?

You’re right, and one of the many ironies in play is this: sports is one of the EASIEST things to handle as a network. There’s no need to hire scriptwriters: it writes itself, and it provides drama and comedy in never-ending supply. There’s high public interest. There’s athletes and teams to love and hate, close games, blowout games, spectacular fails, amazing triumphs.

All you have to do is point a camera and a mic at it and SHUT UP.

But look at the last two weeks: ESPN has covered the Super Bowl from every possible angle including quite a few that really didn’t need to be covered by anyone, ever. Meanwhile, there’s been some terrific women’s basketball going on that hasn’t made it on the air. That is, the programming decision has been to air a bunch of guys sitting around yammering about Manning vs. Newton instead of actually showing a sporting event.

ESPN has lost its way. And unless it goes back to its roots, which were in showing every game it possibly could, back to back, anything, everything, it’s going to keep bleeding subscribers. I’d pay for it IF it would stop being so self-indulgently navel-gazing and actually show me sports.

ECA (profile) says:


To everyone that is paying for ESPN, and dont want it..
They say that 40-60% of everyone wants to watch ESPN, and they put it Into the basic Cable/ that EVERYONE pays for it, if they want it or not.. At $8 per month on your bill..
So we can suggest that 40-60% of the people DONT WANT ESPN, but still PAY for it..
Isnt there a LAW about receiving services, and Paying for them?
Why is the law for Cable/sat any different then Services rendered? and paid? If I dont want it, WHY am I paying for it?

tqk (profile) says:

Yoohoo, SEC?

Part of that effort this week apparently involved reaching out to Nielsen to demand the company fiddle with its cord cutting numbers, which ESPN then peddled to reporters in the hopes of creating an artificial, rosier tomorrow: …

At what point does the SEC step up and demand of these liars, “WTF are you guys trying to pull on your shareholders and potential investors?!?”

I suspect there’s at least a couple of other regulators that could do it instead, but the SEC ought to most easily get the attention of boards of directors and investors.

Too bad the FBI’s busy manufacturing plots with mental defectives, or they might find something fitting into their mandate too.

Anonymous Coward says:

At this point… who even cares anymore ?
Fabricating statistics can only take you so far before it simply becomes an exercise in ego-stroking.
At the end of the day if 15% cut the cord and they report it as 5% they’re the only ones losing.
Also, they’re tricking their shareholders to boot, in what is probably a move to cover their own asses.

As luck would have it many of these shareholders are technologically inept and “too important & busy” to see the truth otherwise they’d have already run for the hills.

Anonymous Coward says:

Trying to bullshit the advertisers to part with more cash per advert space than is really necessary will just mean that advertisers will continue to migrate over to other platforms such as the online world.

It is already happening in print, radio & TV/cable so why not push the advertisers away that bit faster with false numbers to justify your prices?

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