MRC: Nielsen Undercounted Local TV Viewing

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NEW YORK—The Media Rating Council has issued a statement that Nielsen had understated local viewing earlier this year, with smaller markets exhibiting the most problems. 

In May, the MRC had criticized Nielsen’s underreporting of national viewing during the pandemic and it is now reporting similar discrepancies in local viewing among the 56 local metered markets it studied.

“The results show an overall understatement of reported viewing estimates, which is of a similar dimension to the understatements that were seen in the earlier set of national analyses conducted by Nielsen,” the MRC reported. “The sizes of the differences between the simulated and actual viewing estimates appear to correspond largely to market size, with the smaller metered markets (in particular, those markets with a Set Meter + Return Path Data methodology) evidencing the most pronounced differences, while the larger Local People Meter markets, and, to a lesser extent, the Set Meter + PPM markets, displaying somewhat smaller differences between simulated results and reported viewing.”

The MRC simulations found that the largest problems in the smaller “Set Meter + RPD Markets,” where households using television (HUTs) were undercounted by 1% to 5%, with an average difference of 2.5%. 

In these markets, the undercount of people using television aged 25 to 54 (P25-54 PUTs) was as high as 9%, with an average difference of 3.9% between MRC’s simulations and Nielsen’s numbers. 

In markets using the “Set Meter + PPM” methodologies, undercounting of HUTs was as high as 3.7%, with an average difference of 1.3% and the P25-54 PUTs were as high as 4%, with an average difference of 2.2%.

In contrast LPM markets had an average discrepancy of 0.4% in HUTs and 1% in P25-54 PUTs. 

The findings bolster widespread complaints from broadcasters and networks about Nielsen's numbers. 

Even at the seemingly small 2% to 4% levels, the undercounts could represent hundreds of millions of dollars in the local TV ad spending. 

Earlier this year Magna estimated that local TV advertising would hit about $14.3 billion in 2021. That estimate would mean a 2% undercount could cost broadcasters $286 billion, while 4% could translate into more than half a billion in lost revenue. 

The MRC stressed, however that “results should be considered preliminary, and are based on an April 19th visitation cutoff date (the same coverage period that was used for the analyses of national ratings estimates) for the determination of those panel homes to be included or excluded.”

In a statement, Nielsen noted that “In collaboration with the MRC, Nielsen has been conducting a thorough analysis of the estimated impact of changes to its panel maintenance protocols during the COVID-19 pandemic in Local markets. Throughout the pandemic, Nielsen has demonstrated innovation and resilience, and has conferred with the MRC to implement procedural changes that prioritized the safety of our panelists and people, as well as the integrity of currency metrics used by the industry."

Nielsen also stressed that its "February 2021 simulation analysis showed that 90% of P25-54 rating changes for major local stations and cable networks were no more than 0.05[%]" different from reported results.

In addition, Nielsen said that " since early March 2021, Nielsen has been actively applying key learnings in the field as we return to pre-COVID maintenance procedures.  Our first step was to identify the homes that were in most need of a maintenance visit. As of June 4, we have addressed 100% of the homes with maintenance needs. As we continue to execute our panel recovery strategy, we are excited to help the industry return to normal following this unprecedented pandemic.”

George Winslow

George Winslow is the senior content producer for TV Tech. He has written about the television, media and technology industries for nearly 30 years for such publications as Broadcasting & Cable, Multichannel News and TV Tech. Over the years, he has edited a number of magazines, including Multichannel News International and World Screen, and moderated panels at such major industry events as NAB and MIP TV. He has published two books and dozens of encyclopedia articles on such subjects as the media, New York City history and economics.