After Missing Cord Cutting Trend, Nielsen Falls Apart

from the whoops-a-daisy dept

For years, we’ve noted how popular TV ratings firm Nielsen has turned a bit of a blind eye to cord cutting and the Internet video revolution, on one hand declaring that the idea of cord cutting was “pure fiction,” while on the other hand admitting it wasn’t actually bothering to track TV viewing on mobile devices. It’s not surprising; Nielsen’s bread and butter is paid for by traditional cable executives, and really, who wants to take the time to pull all those collective heads of out of the sand to inform them that their precious pay TV cash cow is dying?

Eventually, the cord cutting trend became too big to ignore, forcing Nielsen to change its tune and start acknowledging the very real trend (though they called it “zero TV households” instead of cordcutters). Broadcasters (especially those hardest hit by cord cutting) didn’t much like that, and began bullying the stat firm when it showed data that didn’t jive with the view a foot below ground. While Nielsen slowly improved its methodologies, it would occasionally back off on certain data collection and reporting changes if the cable and broadcast industry complained loudly enough.

Ironically, this fealty to wishful thinking has not paid dividends for Nielsen. Nearly every broadcasters in your cable lineup is expected to launch their own streaming service by 2022. Many of these companies (like CBS) have eyed ditching Nielsen because, they claim, it’s charging too much money for a user tracking system that hasn’t adapted for the streaming era. And despite attempting to use patent monopolies to retain its dominance as the source for TV viewership data, things simply have gone from bad to worse for the one time industry leader.

New reports indicate that after failing to find a buyer, the firm may soon be forced to resort to being chopped up and sold for scraps:

“Private equity giant Blackstone Group is dropping out of the Nielsen Holdings sales process ? putting the future of the auction in doubt, The Post has learned. After months of kicking the tires at Nielsen, Blackstone has decided against making a final offer for the 95-year-old consumer research firm known for its TV-rating reports, sources told The Post. Separately, private equity firm Apollo Global Management, which began sniffing around the company late last year, is also losing interest, a source close to the situation said.”

There’s a lot of reasons for Nielsen’s demise. The company is saddled with debt, and companies are tired of paying high rates for a service that doesn’t adequately even measure streaming video subscribership. But one has to find it at least semi-ironic that Nielsen spent years delivering “everything is just fine!” missives to the cable and broadcast industry in the belief it would ingratiate itself to them, only to now find few friends as the 95-year-old consumer research firm tries to avoid a complete collapse.

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Comments on “After Missing Cord Cutting Trend, Nielsen Falls Apart”

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59 Comments
OGquaker (profile) says:

Re: Re: Authorities agree: keep shuffling numbers unto death

In 1960 we had five TVs in our living room, ABC, NBC, CBS and one other had cut a deal to hook up Pop’s patented RAM system to four televisions, our RCA sat in the corner, overwhelmed. The customer was suppose to program their TV to TURN ON a dozen or more times during the 7 day week, one of 12 channels, 48 possible time slots for each day, repeat. Gad, no squirrels up that tree!
My Grandfather’s Merced communist power co. had to open an appliance store to sell electricity in the 20’s… Nielsen’s beginnings. Hard to imagine, eh?

By 1964 the California Legislator had outlawed cable ‘pay TV’ and destroyed Pop’s TV-on-a-power-wire patent. The FCC did a work-around.

Nielsen has been dragged thru the courts as white raciest for decades, Board meetings of the local 110kw FM station explode when our $bill for Nielsen is mentioned.

May their splinters never find one another.

fairuse (profile) says:

As a one time Nielsen household

Way back I said ok to let Nielsen do their thing at my house. What a cluster F_ck. Three tvs and VCRs got their magic hardware and a dialup data modem to report whatever those devices were tuned to, dot, dot dot.

I don’t turn off TVs. One may be on the weather channel for hours. One may be on whatever channel was last. Well, that made them crazy.

Hardware glitches, modem no connect, calls to me; did you watch USA for last 10 hours. Maybe, "USA Up All Night" was after hour party gold.

Long and painful experiment in TV ratings for advertising not consumers. Wanted to burn those watch logs that acted as backup of last resort.

I’m not going to cry if Nielsen is the new buggy whip company.

BurningWoodchipper (profile) says:

Re: As a one time Nielsen household

Nielsen has been going door-to-door in my neighborhood for months. I’ve told at least three reps face-to-face that i’m not interested, I don’t support what they do, I’m not going to fill out logs, and they can’t remotely monitor what I’m watching.

Still, every few weeks a new team of reps (always two people) ring my doorbell, freak out about my large, loud (and overly friendly) dog, and then have to listen to my diatribe.

Evidently they’re paying people now (not enough, no matter how much it is), and I’m "perfect" for them as I stream and watch locals OTA.

Having spent my career in marketing and having relied on Nielsen ratings in the past, they can burn and all their employees can find work at Wal-mart.

nerdrage (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: As a one time Nielsen household

Well in the brave new world of streaming where Netflix sees everything we do, where we pause to go to the bathroom and when we come back, shows still get cancelled. Just ask the fans of The OA.

I won’t miss that one, I agree with Netflix, it’s stupid and they gave it enough time to shape the hell up.

fairuse (profile) says:

Re: Re: As a one time Nielsen household

I have TVs in the TV room that only power down for HDMI device mount/unmount.

Even the big ass glass crt TVs were seldom off – Iron transformers too.

These days switching power supplies are aways on even if TV off button is pushed. Stack of DVD/VCR and DVD and Blu-ray boxes have auto off. Laser friendly.

Gary (profile) says:

What they Want

For decades every time Nielsen actually tried to improve it’s methodology the broadcasters flipped out and pushed back.
When they tried to replace viewer logbooks (where the household would take notes and manually record their viewing) the broadcasters raised such a stink they dropped their plan to roll out a new system that automatically and accurately recorded all the details.
That was back in the day, but the broadcasters knew the logbooks over reported the viewing of key shows and didn’t want more accurate info.

JoeDetroit (profile) says:

Re: What they Want

Way back in 1987 or so I was selected by Nielsen to keep a log book. I completely lied filling it out. What I logged was only Star Trek reruns & Next Generation. The truth was I never actually turned on the TV. I was young, working lots of hours, & had cash to burn & fun to have. I was only home to sleep, shower, & try to get some laundry done.

When I was very young they canceled Star Trek (my parents let me stay up late to watch it). I was still holding a grudge over that.

nerdrage (profile) says:

Re: What they Want

Advertisers should have refused to accept logbook data then. The broadcasters are the foxes (Foxes?) guarding the henhouse. They can’t be expected to advocate against their interests. The advertisers were the ones being overcharged, why did they meekly continue to pay? Their fault. Nielsens is just a referee between broadcast/cable and advertisers.

DB (profile) says:

We can be pretty certain they have not been oblivious to their own demise.

The phrase "the company is saddled with debt" means that the upper management and board of directors has already decided to cash out of the business. The net income is likely just barely enough to service the debt, making the company’s net worth close to zero. Perhaps even less. Anyone group buying should expect losses, and have profit elsewhere that it needs to offset. Or expect to be really efficient at running the business and extracting all value from the reputation (which usually involves destroying it).

nerdrage (profile) says:

Re: There are times...

Nielsens’ customers were advertisers and I don’t see those guys as being naive or easily misled. If they suspected Nielsens’ data was wrong, why did they continue to pay for it, or pay broadcasters/cable for their ad slots that aren’t delivering the goods?

The system continued along until technology rendered it obsolete. The audience decamped for ad-free streaming and the advertisers decamped for Google and Facebook, where there is no need for Nielsens. Nielsens is not collapsing because it had "bad data" but because their services are no longer required to make the system work.

Bloof (profile) says:

Oh no! Without Nielsen who will sign the deathwarrants for the rare few shows on American mainstream TV that actually attempt to be creative? Who will keep the vaseline porridge of crime/military/medical dramas/comedies featuring people who ‘play by their own rules, damnit!’ appropriately lukewarm? What will become of middle of the road actors like Ted Danson and Scott Bakula who aren’t quite handsome enough for Hollywood? Who will think of the advertisers how will they know what shows to run ads during? They might have to gamble on shows with genuine buzz! The horror1

Won’t someone please think of the mediocre and save them?!

Wendy Cockcroft (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

Is Bakula the whiny one who plays the Basset Hound-loving captain on one of the new Star Treks that I never watch? I caught a few minutes of one episode where his dog had peed on something important and the natives became a bit restless over it. Whine, whine, whine.

I turned the telly off just before I completely lost the will to live and haven’t watched the show since.

nerdrage (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Netflix will cancel creative shows like The OA with no help from Nielsens. The only thing that’s changing is that we won’t have Nielsens to blame. There’s no way to say Netflix is wrong, since only they have the data, and I bet The OA’s viewership did crater since S2 was so sucky.

Or maybe the viewership was still strong but Netflix realized, nobody is signing up for The OA so screw it, let’s go hire the guys from Game of Thrones instead. That should get some buzz. The second quarter results were weak and the stock tanked. Gotta do something to turn that around.

ECA (profile) says:

Shoot the Messinger..

Lets see..
I was asked to fill out one of their forms..
Only sent 1 in and they never came back..(love my antenna)
A company of yess’ men.
Screw with the numbers abit, or Mis-label a Few Important parts just to hide a few Facts they dont like.. so that the Corps can Hide Their info in other hidden facts.

Now..
Is cable/sat going to lower prices FINALLY?? $100 for 200+ channels seems interesting until you understand the cable/sat are paying Pennies for 90% of them OR are being paid by those channels to broadcast. those 200+ channels are worth less than $20 at most. Then add a few Special channels..$5-10 each..isnt bad and is 50-80% profit.

The Contract with ESPN, is F’ing stupid. and they Must have gotten a good price for it. AS we are paying $6-8 per household, Even if we dont watch sports.(well 1/2 sports 1/2 commercials)
There WERE a few nice independent Sports channels… but they Disappeared…strange.. Loved one, that had international sports. and it was Free.

Richard Hershberger says:

"(though they called it "zero TV households" instead of cordcutters)"

This is not merely weaselly. It is inaccurate. I cut the cord years ago. I still have a TV. It can get some, though not all, of the over-the-air channels in the major city near me. For most channels, I need to place the antenna, with a long coax cable, out the front door. I only bother for occasional sporting events. The most recent was for the women’s soccer world cup final. Come football season I will do it some more. So this is in no way a zero TV household. But I, the wife, and the kids routinely stream. It would never occur to them to haul the antenna out because it was eight o’clock and they wanted to watch whatever happened to be on.

Mike says:

current neilsen home

Lol, this is not quite true, folks. At least in my home, for past couple of years. They are logging my Roku, OTA, Netflix, Amazon prime, etc. They even log my old Wii! As far as puters, no interest in watching on 24" screen when 4 over 55 are available. As far as watching shows on my phone? Are you serious about considering that? Can only imagine porn for millennials on cell phones.

Maybe author of the article should have checked a bit more.

Also, you get a 50$ check once or twice a year to cover the cost of the power they use, as there are a lot of electronics used currently.

TwiztidJuggla420 (profile) says:

Re: current neilsen home

"As far as puters, no interest in watching on 24" screen"

Wow. Your computer must be at least 10-15 years old if it doesn’t have an output that can be connected to a television. I have my computer connected to a 65" 4k HDR display (as well as other smaller secondary monitors for high refresh rate gaming when I play FPS games).

fairuse (profile) says:

Re: current neilsen home

I have 27" iMac and watch streams on it. Big LED HD Samsung is cable box and disk players. Even 8.8 Kindle Fire is handy and mirrors to TV.

I cannot dream of a mobile I would watch p0rn on. One Plus 7 pro is big but why bother? Right. Ads

Mobiles are a mess of ad servers. Count that Neilsen – app with ads.

Tim R says:

This is really the result of technology advancement. The whole reason for Nielsen to exist in the first place was because television was a one way medium. One signal went out, but after that, the networks had no idea who was actually receiving that signal. In comes a methodology for deduction through the use of "Nielsen Households" and the manually maintained log of viewing habits. This was neither precise (not every household had one) nor reliable (human maintained logs could easily be wrong and imperfect).

Cable came along, and with later DOCSIS versions, companies gained the ability to actually snoop in on what people were watching and on how many TVs. But this was considered proprietary data to each local cable exchange, so those numbers would never reach Nielsen.

Now you have streaming options. Not only can the streaming provider know what you’re watching, it can also know how much of it you’ve watched, and if that viewing led to other shows. With each network launching its own streaming option, Nielsen becomes obsolete. In the end, it really doesn’t have anything to do with the expense. Nielsen could provide it for free, and it wouldn’t be nearly as accurate or accessible as the numbers the networks have in-house.

The next step of this is going to be that this viewership data will be considered trade secret, and not divulged to the public, a la Netflix. Production companies will just have to take the network’s word for it when they say that viewer numbers are down, which can become an unfair negotiating tactic that favors the networks. This where the evolution of the blackout will head: without cable companies as distributors paying retransmission fees, networks will start squeezing the production companies, giving an unfair advantage to their own content.

This is not academic. This is already happening with commercial internet services.

urza9814 (profile) says:

I did one once...

I did a Neilson survey thing two or three years ago…it was kinda weird.

At that point I hadn’t had cable for about eight years already. They sent a log book with instructions to record everything you watched, regardless of if it was TV, streaming, or anything else. They ended up getting a list of my favorite YouTube channels…possibly mixed in with a couple shows that had long since been cancelled (pretty sure it contained at least one BBC show from the ’80s…)

Haven’t heard anything from them since…lol

tom (profile) says:

Wonder how long before lawsuits begin claiming under-reporting of viewers when a show is licensed from outside the streaming network(to lower license fees) and over-reporting for for in network shows(for higher ad fees)?

When each network is running its own proprietary and secret viewership monitoring service, verifying real numbers is likely to become very interesting.

alternatives() says:

$2 and $5

In the last 30 days they mailed this address $2 and $5.

The $2 bought a lotto ticket that didn’t win.

The $5 has yet to have this story attached to it: Ticket wins lotto from money Nielson sent and then bought the company to bury it.

So now gonna hold onto the $5 ’till the jackpot is big enough to have that story.

Anonymous Coward says:

In Soviet Russia, digital cable watch YOU!!

Joking aside, when TV signals came from rooftop antennas, communication was in one direction only… so the only way to know if anyone was watching was to have someone like BBM or Neilsen survey and ask.

Go to a bidirectional communication medium, such as Internet streaming, and whomever runs the servers (or at least the CDN) already knows how many copies they sent out. No need for Neilsen.

Dave W (profile) says:

Nielsen's Internet Tracking

I remember being contacted by Nielsen about 10 years ago to say they wanted to track those who streamed video and I would be rewarded. I was assured this was all anonymous and only related to video. Out of interest I agreed and was amused to be sent a blank, unbranded CD to "load onto all internet-connected devices in the house" which would then "track all my internet communications and relay them back to Nielsen".

No more mention of anonymity and they threatened to charge me £20 if i didn’t return the CD – which i did.

I decided at that point that they really had no idea what they were doing.

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

"it’s charging too much money for a user tracking system that hasn’t adapted for the streaming era"

The problems of an entire industry in a single sentence.

Perhaps they should have hired some **AA staffers on how you keep selling lies to the people paying you when you’ve claim the sky is falling for the 15th record breaking year of profits….

nerdrage (profile) says:

Some companies can be faulted for rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic while they lose their business, but I’m not sure Nielsens is one of them. Their business was providing a mediator between broadcast and cable on one hand and advertisers on the other, to verify that the inventory advertisers were buying from broadcast/cable was, in fact, being watched by the demographic that the advertises wanted.

We can all quibble over whether Nielsesn was correct but we’re not the people buying the data. Advertisers are. And as long as they believe the data, Nielsens stays in business.

But now the audience has gone to ad-fre streaming and advertisers are going to Google and Facebook, where the measurement is built into the product. I’ve bough ads from Google and I can just buy clicks rather than impressions. I see the clicks on my website and I see what the users are doing, so I know nobody is fibbing too terribly much. Nielsens has no role because nobody needs their verification. Not sure what verification they could have provided if the advertisers and the ad space providers are working together just fine?

Nielsens went thru a phase where they tried to find a new business model reporting Netflix numbers to Netflix’s content suppliers – the people making content for Netflix, who maybe Netflix was fibbing to, about how popular there shows were? If Netflix downplays the popularity, then the content makers are being cheated when they negotiate a renewal. But that never seemed to get off the ground.

There’s a lot more to that sort of negotiation than just dollars and cents. There’s also the relationship, whether Netflix thinks the content creators will do good work for them in the future, so let’s hang onto this somewhat weak show from them for now, and also the whole issue that sheer viewing numbers don’t mean as much for Netflix as they do for ad-supported broadcast. With Netflix, I’m sure there’s some metric that gets at how well a show or movie helps attract and retain subscribers. Something like Friends probably underperforms like that compared with their sheer viewing numbers. A nichey show like, say, GLOW probably overperforms. But that’s a number Nielsens will never know because they can’t see subscriber trends that only Netflix has access to.

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