Nielsen vs. the MRC

An image to illustrate the concept of Nielsen ratings not being accepted by the Media Rating Council.

There’s a measurement kerfuffle currently roiling the media world that’s the communications equivalent of a Category 5 hurricane. The Cliff Notes version is that Nielsen ratings—the numbers that have dictated how much advertisers spend for any given TV show for half a century or more—are no longer acceptable to the Media Rating Council (MRC), the organization whose charter is to ensure that the metrics are accurate and trustworthy.

A bit of background… After the game show scandals of the 50s, the MRC was created by Congress as an independent quasi-governmental body to standardize TV audience metrics. What it has done ever since is to inform the industry about the accuracy and validity of the metrics it produces. Over the years that initial charter has expanded to include a much broader spectrum of media, including social media, online video, and many others. That this standard-setting body refuses to certify Nielsen’s ratings is deservedly making headlines.

The ruckus erupted when Kelly Abcarian, EVP of Measurement and Impact for NBC Universal (NBCU), pointed out Nielsen’s failings, announcing that “it’s time for us to declare measurement independence,” and called for an entirely new blueprint for measurement. (Something I’ve been calling for for years.) She referred to Nielsen’s current system as “outdated,” and accused it of ignoring diverse consumer behavior. She closed by asking her peers to “put people over ratings.”

How do they measure those car ads, anyway?

’Round about the same time, during one of my rare moments of watching prime time TV, I was having similar thoughts. I’m in the market for a new car, so was paying particular attention to the car ads. Suddenly I realized that I had absolutely no idea what they were selling. Pretty mountain vistas? Beaches? Puppies? Nor could I differentiate who was selling what.

So, I started actually analyzing the ads. (What measurement nerds do for fun.) Subaru has long sold “love,” which I never really looked for from a car. Perhaps that’s my fault for looking in all the wrong places. But I’m not one to look at a vehicle and think, “I want you to be my Valentine.” These days Subaru seems to be more focused on hawking cars to dogs or dog owners, which turns all of us cat people off.

Volvo (or is it Lincoln? I can’t remember), on the other hand, seems to want me to buy a car as an escape room. But what about if I don’t need to escape from anything?

All of which got me to stop looking for a car and start wondering how they test and measure all of these very expensive ad buys. Are they actually looking at ad $$ spent vs. cars sold? Or are they still tracking “ratings?” Which aren’t any more accurate, apparently than impressions—a metric that the industry acknowledges is flawed and outdated?

And, in case they were trying to attribute sales to an ad, well, GM has tried it. And you can’t do it. Kathy Collins, who was head of research and analytics at GM, spent about a year analyzing data to try to show the connection between messaging and vehicle sales. Her conclusion: There are just too many other factors involved to develop an accurate attribution model for cars.

Why should we care about Nielsen ratings?

Now back to the real question: does MRC’s pulling of Nielsen’s accreditation really matter? Brian Steinberg at Variety seems to think it does, citing advertisers’ concerns with Nielsen’s counts. And WarnerMedia, ViacomCBS, and more major networks are all testing new providers.

But Steinberg raises a broader point, which is that Nielsen ratings are measuring an audience that is shrinking faster than a Greenland ice sheet. Increasingly “TV” isn’t watched on a TV, but rather is consumed on phones, computers, laptops, and tablets, whenever and wherever the audience wants to consume it.

To keep pace with this shift, networks and advertisers are turning to metrics that they’ve come to expect from the digital world: on-line shopping patterns, social engagement, and web tracking. All of which enable them to more precisely target the specific audience an advertiser needs to reach. As a result, the universal language of success, i.e., “ratings,” is being replaced by a cacophony of data produced by different companies offering different tools—few of which meet anyone’s standards of transparency or accuracy. We caught a whiff of this after the 2016 Olympics, and the trend has only gotten more pronounced in a new pandemic world.

Sound familiar, PR people?

If this is starting to sound a lot like the confusion that is ever-present in the earned media measurement world, it should. In 2010 the PR industry came together and approved measurement standards, which came to be known as the Barcelona Principles. At the time the two main drivers of those standards, the Institute for PR and AMEC, had neither the clout, the size, nor the congressional mandate of the MRC.

As a result, more than a decade later, people are still complaining that PR measurement lacks standards, even though those standards are 11 years old, and have been updated three times to keep pace with industry changes. And despite those standards, awards are still doled out to agencies who tout “media value” and AVEs as measures of a campaign’s success, even though they have been discredited since 2009

The only thing we seemed to have learned over time is that the people with the real power to change how we measure are the ones who control the budgets. So, in the case of Nielsen vs. the MRC vs. the networks, the advertisers are the ones who will ultimately dictate what measures are acceptable to them.

In earned media it’s the clients. Sadly, their budgets are typically “rounding errors” compared to the ad budgets of most companies. The only piece of good news is that many of the more sophisticated clients—and, more importantly, their bosses—are finally rejecting inflated vanity metrics like impressions and likes. They, like their paid digital colleagues, have begun looking at search rankings, true engagement, and goal completions. More importantly, these clients are demanding that both the outlets/platforms and the tool providers get more accurate and more precise about who they are actually reaching, with what messages, and when.

Just like their paid brethren, earned communications pros have realized that reaching everyone on the planet—most of whom can’t buy your product, have no use for it, and don’t care about it—is a waste of time. We’ve learned from digital targeting that it is much more efficient to connect to the right people with the right message at the right time in such a way that they chose to engage with whatever you’re saying.

And that, my dearly beloved, is the future of measurement. And if you want to hear from people who are actually implementing these sophisticated programs, register now for Paine Publishing’s Summit on the Future of Communications Measurement, coming the first week in October. ∞

About Author

Katie Paine

I've been called The Queen Of Measurement, but I prefer Seshat, the Goddess.