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Media Companies, Advertisers and Agencies Set Up Nielsen Rival

The news on Thursday that major media-buying agencies and media companies have come together in a consortium to measure viewership across multiple platforms shouldn't surprise anyone. It's rather astounding that with the constant controversies over audience measurement, and basically only one provider of TV ratings -- Nielsen -- there aren't more options out there for media companies and advertisers to find out what people are watching, and what they're watching it on.

According to the Financial Times, which broke the story, the players involved, which include all of the broadcast TV networks, Viacom, the massive media buying agencies Group M and Starcom Mediavest Group, and major advertisers Procter & Gamble, AT&T, and Unilever, see a pressing need to get a handle on this measurement issue as more people turn to Hulu, and their iPhones to consume TV series that used to be confined to a particular day and time on the big box. The issue, according to one Starcom exec involved in the initiative wasn't to replace Nielsen, but it should be obvious that if current measurement initiatives were sufficient, the companies involved wouldn't feel the need to, well, roll their own.

Another possibility is that these companies are trying to spur Nielsen into moving more quickly, and that the best way they could think to do it is to put their initiative into the mix. The hurdles to pulling off a new system of measurement are huge, taking tens of millions, maybe even hundreds of millions, to create, and, thus far, each partner has only contributed $100,000 to the cause. The next phase of its plan, per the FT, is "to award contracts for measuring set-top box data and cross-platform viewers across TV and digital sources." That could happen towards the end of this year.

However, as anxious as all of these companies are to measure the current state of cross-platform video consumption, they may not want to get that deeply involved -- but to goad Nielsen into moving more quickly. Putting up a straw-horse rival, consisting of Nielsen's biggest customers, would be one way to do it. The problem with the monopoly that Nielsen has on television measurement -- its measurement is the currency upon which audience ratings, and therefore TV ad rates are based -- is that too often its monopoly status makes it less than nimble. As technological change has continued to accelerate, this has become a bigger and bigger liability.

But in fairness to Nielsen, Nielsen-bashing is somewhat of a blood sport among the TV measurement intelligentsia, so even if the company is slow, part of the reason is because it's constantly trying to acquiesce to the needs of its persnickety customer base. In April, when Nielsen began to measure Internet usage among its TV People Meter sample, some researchers got all tied up in their underwear claiming that it "could impact the stability" of the core TV ratings. The argument to me, seemed ridiculous, as it stemmed from a belief that people wouldn't report their online activity accurately. That, in turn, assumes that everything that Nielsen records though its People Meter homes is accurate, which isn't true. While the meter itself is automated, it still demands some level of human interaction; when viewers in a People Meter home enter the room they are supposed to push "a personal viewing button" so that the meter can wed viewing behavior to the demographic data of that viewer. Nielsen has recently admitted that the button-pushing doesn't always happen. Nielsen, so far, isn't saying anything about the new measurement consortium. Because evolving TV measurement is such a pressing issue, let's hope it speaks with actions, more than words.

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