(Mis)Uses of Technology

by Karl Bode


Filed Under:
news, nitely news, ratings

Companies:
comcast, nbc, nielsen



Comcast/NBC Caught Intentionally Misspelling Show Names To Help Hide Sagging Nielsen Ratings

from the obvious-integrity dept

The cable and broadcast industry goes to some amusing lengths to downplay cord cutting and streaming competition's impact on ratings and subscriber totals. Initially the impulse was just to insist that cord cutting wasn't real. When the data made outright denial impossible, the industry began insisting cord cutting was only something done by irrelevant nobodies living in mom's basement or Millennials who would see the error of their ways once they procreated. Of course data repeatedly showed that these people were the norm, and now we're looking at potentially one of the biggest quarterly subscriber losses in television history.

As ratings have reflected the industry's dying cash cow, they've also taken consistent aim at viewership measurement systems as well. A bone of particular contention has been Nielsen, which is stuck between trying to accurately measure the damage and cater to myopic cable and broadcast clients that can't hear well with their heads buried firmly in the sand. A few years ago, Nielsen was forced to stop publicizing the rise in broadband-only (not TV) households. More recently, ESPN tried to publicly shame Nielsen when the company accurately highlighted the massive subscriber exodus happening at the channel.

But the cable and broadcast industry has been engaged in some other notable shenanigans to try and protect the illusion that everything is going swimmingly. The Wall Street Journal indicates that the industry has increasingly been going so far as to intentionally misspell their programs in program listings. Why? Because when they know a show is going to see a ratings dip, listing it under another name prevents its core listing from being impacted in the Nielsen ratings:

"That explains the appearance of "NBC Nitely News," which apparently aired on the Friday of Memorial Day weekend this year, when a lot of people were away from their TVs. The retitling of “NBC Nightly News” fooled Nielsen’s automated system, which listed “Nitely” as a separate show. Hiding the May 26 program from Nielsen dramatically improved the show’s average viewership that week," the report adds. "Instead of falling further behind first-place rival 'ABC World News Tonight,' NBC news narrowed the gap."

The Journal goes on to note how this has been a sort of "open secret" in the industry for several years, but as cord cutting has begun to accelerate, its use has increased. At one point, NBC intentionally misspelled "NBC Nitely News" every night for a week. And all of this appears to be happening with the blessing of Nielsen, which again tries to walk a tightrope between being taken seriously as a rating metric system and keeping paying cable and broadcast clients happy with manufactured tales from fantasy land.

For its part, NBC issued a statement that features a number of words, but at no point addresses the issue at hand:

"As is standard industry practice, our broadcast is retitled when there are pre-emptions and inconsistencies or irregularities in the schedule, which can include holiday weekends and special sporting events,” a show spokesman said."

Granted that sounds so much nicer than "we intentionally misspell our own programs to try and pretend our industry isn't facing a massive revolution we're ill-prepared for."


Reader Comments

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  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 13 Jul 2017 @ 10:53am

    TV Executive #1: How did we do in the Neilsen ratings last week, Bob?

    TV Executive #2: Not bad. An average week for us. But you should have seen how we did in the Neelson ratings. 200 million households per show! And people like to pretend cord cutting is real.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 13 Jul 2017 @ 10:53am

    Are you saying

    that NBC has been caught with "fake views"?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Whoever, 13 Jul 2017 @ 11:05am

    Short sighted because of TIVO.

    The other effect of renaming is that it will reduce actual viewership. All those TIVO users will find that the program has not recorded, so fewer actual viewers. Also, if this happens in the middle of a story arc, viewers who can't find the missing episode may not bother with later episodes.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 13 Jul 2017 @ 11:17am

      Re: Short sighted because of TIVO.

      True, but they're doing this to programs that they already expect to perform poorly. Assuming they do a decent job of predicting which programs will do poorly, reducing the numerator (number of viewers for this episode) doesn't hurt them nearly as much as not reducing the denominator (number of times this series aired). Depending on the formula Nielsen uses, it might be the case that the misnamed episode would need to do better than average for this practice to have any adverse impact on the network's numbers. If the program gets exactly average viewing, including or excluding it has no effect. If it gets below average viewing, excluding it helps. If it gets above average viewing, excluding it hurts. What are the odds that they would get above-average viewing on a night that history says is routinely below-average (due to holidays, competing big-name events, etc.)?

      As an aside, as a PVR user, the latter has happened to me. I have one series (that I can recall offhand) on indefinite hiatus (with a slowly climbing chance I'll just delete all remaining episodes unwatched) because one episode midseason failed to record and there was no way to get it from other legal sources: streaming didn't have it, no reruns airing on any channel, etc.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Carrie (profile), 13 Jul 2017 @ 11:14am

    True Story. My friend's 5-year-old, raised on iPads with Netflix, said this yesterday:

    "You know how Grandma's TV has something called...channels? Yeah, I think it's called channels. And there are breaks where they play commercials?"

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    stderric (profile), 13 Jul 2017 @ 11:32am

    Next headline:

    "ABC Has Best Nielsen Week In Years, Apparently Has No Shows Whatsoever"

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Hugh Jasohl (profile), 13 Jul 2017 @ 11:35am

    Being force fed commercials

    Consumers adapt to the ever growing pressure of ads. We have shows split up even when we pay a premium to watch them in many formats. Smart consumers see the options and go with the one that inconvenience them the least overall. Traditional cable TV seems to be trying to wring blood out of a stone with the remaining subscribers they have left. Two more years is the maximum that this state will last before it fragments and consumers benefit from lower costs and more choices, with very few, if any ads.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Cowardly Lion, 14 Jul 2017 @ 4:48am

      Re: Being force fed commercials

      On a similar note, I gave up with physical media after getting thoroughly cheesed off with the unskippable FBI and Interpol anti-piracy warnings.

      Naturally having laid out 10-15€, I resented being treated like a crook.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 14 Jul 2017 @ 7:19am

      Re: Being force fed commercials

      Yes it is ridiculous the mere existence of ads in subscription-based TV, I mean the whole point of subscription was to avoid the ads and here we are (at least some of us) paying for a subscription that is full of ads (and many other hidden costs).

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 13 Jul 2017 @ 11:42am

    Money Talks...

    and the bullshit gets up and walks...

    There is no institution of man immune.
    Science, Education, News & General Media, Government, Law Enforcement, Courts, your son and your daughter are all subject to doing things...

    when the price is right

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    SirWired (profile), 13 Jul 2017 @ 11:47am

    I'll take Shortsighted Thinking for $1,000 Alex...

    Yes, Nielsen, your direct customers (the ones paying the bills) are the networks you collect statistics on. But THEIR customers (the advertisers) are the eventual consumers of the data.

    If the advertisers lose confidence in the data, they'll get their data from somebody else (instead of letting the networks pass it on), and it's unlikely that source is going to end up being Nielsen.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Thad, 13 Jul 2017 @ 12:12pm

      Re: I'll take Shortsighted Thinking for $1,000 Alex...

      But who else is there? I don't see a burgeoning competitive market for analyzing broadcast/cable TV viewership numbers, with a lot of new entrants eager to get a slice of that pie.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Jeff Green (profile), 14 Jul 2017 @ 2:33am

        Re: Re: I'll take Shortsighted Thinking for $1,000 Alex...

        Nielson are only market leaders in North America, elsewhere Kantar Media dominate, there are two or three other players too.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Hugh Jasohl (profile), 13 Jul 2017 @ 11:49am

    Trust Vaccuum

    Since Nielsen is no longer trustworthy, it sounds like we need a new 3rd party aggregate counter to keep track of various entertainment trends. It should include viewership from youtube channels, netflix, amazon, and other internet only systems along with cable, over the air and none of the above. We should be able to see popular music trends and music videos as well.

    When a system starts being manipulated, we can't trust it to reform itself any longer.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Thad, 13 Jul 2017 @ 12:15pm

      Re: Trust Vaccuum

      But websites don't need a sampling organization to determine their viewership numbers; they already have them. What benefit would they see in sharing or publishing those numbers?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    TechDescartes (profile), 13 Jul 2017 @ 12:05pm

    A Better Mousetrap

    If the ratings are that bad, wouldn't it be more effective for NBC just to rename the show "ABC World News Tonight"?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Arthur Moore (profile), 13 Jul 2017 @ 12:17pm

      Re: A Better Mousetrap

      Not really, because the ratings aren't all bad. Nightly News probably has reasonable ratings, but they wanted it just a bit higher. So, they used the intentional misspelling to not have a weekend that they knew would have bad ratings counted.

      Of course, as has been mentioned this screws anyone with a DVR, since the show doesn't get recorded. It's also relatively easy for Nielsen to fix. Just add a step where the data is cleaned up. Possibly have someone set up a mapping by hand to re-name the shows.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        JoeCool (profile), 13 Jul 2017 @ 2:01pm

        Re: Re: A Better Mousetrap

        The way to deal with that is that any show previously submitted but not officially canceled will get a 0 if not resubmitted. Do that a few times and they'll correct their spelling rather quickly, as low ratings are better than 0.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 14 Jul 2017 @ 7:27am

          Re: Re: Re: A Better Mousetrap

          Agree, but that is exactly the point about Nielsen, why haven't they fixed it? After all, the industry itself has admitted that it is an industry-wide practice that has been going on for years, and Nielsen has chosen all those years to run along with such maneuvers, proof of their guilt and corruption.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 14 Jul 2017 @ 7:23am

      Re: A Better Mousetrap

      No because of one word, Branding. They already have a brand, a name that is giving them (at least some) ratings and money.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 13 Jul 2017 @ 1:20pm

    Fraud By Any Name...

    "And all of this appears to be happening with the blessing of Nielsen, which again tries to walk a tightrope between being taken seriously as a rating metric system and keeping paying cable and broadcast clients happy with manufactured tales from fantasy land. "

    Or as we should more accurately describe it, "a concerted conspiracy to continue bilking marketers by misrepresenting the actual decline in TV, cable and broadcast, viewership, and thus a large, real reduction in the values of advertising placements on these media distribution channels."

    tl;dr: collusive fraud against ad buyers.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    YoursFaithfully, 13 Jul 2017 @ 3:40pm

    "As is standard industry practice, our broadcast is retitled when there are pre-emptions and inconsistencies or irregularities in the schedule, which can include holiday weekends and special sporting events,” a show spokesman said."

    MON,20h: NOW ON NBC, GAME OF BONES!

    TUE,21h: NOW ON NBC, GAME OF ZONES!

    WED,18h: NOW ON NBC, GAME OF CONES!

    THU,19h: NOW ON NBC, GAME OF DRONES!

    FRI,22h: NOW ON NBC, GAME OF MOANS!

    SAT,24: NOW ON NBC, GAME OF LOANS!

    SUN,1h: NOW ON NBC, GAME OF CLONES!

    Yeeeeeahhhh ... no ... because ... like ... IT'S STILL THE SAME SHOW, GODDANGIT!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Anonymous Anonymous Coward (profile), 13 Jul 2017 @ 4:03pm

    Drop?

    I am having a hard time understanding how a misspelling of a show name helps. If the show watched has the correct name, then the misspelled show get a zero rating, and the correctly spelled show name gets whatever the viewership was. If the show watched has a misspelled name, how can anyone claim it is the same show? How does the misspelling of the name actually help? Are the advertisers fooled? Are the networks fooled? Is Neilsen fooled?

    Maybe, maybe, the end consumer is fooled, but other than paying the cable bill, or not as the case may be, who is actually fooled? The money lays with the advertisers, through the networks, who will be caught at their gamesmanship.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Dan Audy (profile), 13 Jul 2017 @ 10:52pm

      Re: Drop?

      The money is with the advertisers who pay a rate based on Nielens average viewership numbers. By cutting out a poor performing episode from the 'average' calculation it creates an artificially inflated value that the network gets paid for commercials during that show. If a news show that airs 5 days a week normally gets 500,000 viewers but only 250,000 viewers when scheduled against a football game 'misspelling' the shows name means that the rate they are being paid for commercial time during a week with a football game is at the 500,000 viewers/show rate (2 mil / 4 shows) rather than 450,000 viewers/show (2.25 mil / 5 shows) or roughly 11% more than they should be getting paid based on the contracts with the advertisers.

      It is the same strategy that some schools use by encouraging poor performers to drop out school to artificially inflate their test scores on the standardized testing. By eliminating (through unethical means) the worst performers the reported average goes up despite not actually doing a better job.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 14 Jul 2017 @ 7:31am

      Re: Drop?

      The misspell the episodes with lowest ratings so those do not count to the average rating calculation.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 13 Jul 2017 @ 4:30pm

    how is this not a felony?

    fraud
    misrepresentation
    truth in advertising

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      PaulT (profile), 14 Jul 2017 @ 1:05am

      Re: how is this not a felony?

      At the very least, I'd expect it to be a breach of contract, so it would be interesting to see how the advertisers respond to this news.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    David, 14 Jul 2017 @ 1:02am

    What do you expect?

    They are consistently misspelling "net neuralgy" too.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 14 Jul 2017 @ 7:29am

    THIS for lol of the week.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Not Drew Carey, 14 Jul 2017 @ 1:11pm

    Welcome to Neilsen ratings, where everything's made up and the points don't matter.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    John85851 (profile), 17 Jul 2017 @ 11:13am

    Why stop with Nitely News

    If the networks were smart, they'd just rename the show to "The News". Then when every network does this, "The News" becomes the largest-watched show in history.
    Of course, Neilson would show that it aired at 6:00pm. 7:00pm, and 11:00pm on every channel, but why nit-pick?

    Or Neilson could figure out that the same news show airs every weekday at the same time, no matter what the network decides to call it, and then average the ratings together.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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