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.