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Nielsen Grants Concession Over Local Ratings, But That Doesn't Mean the Controversy Is Over [Updated]

Nielsen has offered a peace offering late this afternoon in its ongoing debate with advertisers and agencies about whether DVR viewers in local markets should count. In a letter to clients obtained by BNET Media, the ratings giant says it will give advertisers and agencies what they want: continued release of local TV ratings that only reflect "Live" viewing. In early November, Nielsen said it was going to stop giving Live viewing only ratings entirely next year, in favor of Live + Same Day ratings that record DVR-viewing within 24 hours after a program actually aired.

Here are more details of what Nielsen is offering up. Starting in January, the accustomed live ratings will continue to be issued, but only on an interim basis until discussions between all of the constituencies involved -- including stations, advertisers, agencies and Nielsen -- can be resolved. It will supplement that data with the Live + Same Day data that started the controversy. There are other smaller changes to the data streams that will be provided, but that's the gist. (UPDATE:The Live ratings will only be available once a month through what Nielsen calls the Total Viewing Sources file, which makes it less user-friendly than when the data was released more frequently. Also, after I originally wrote this post, Nielsen told clients that this interim plan would only be in effect until March 31.)

Since, by Nielsen's account, 60 percent of playback occurs within the first day of live viewing, Nielsen's desire to shift to Live + Same Day seems pretty logical, but not to agencies, who even threatened legal action against Nielsen for wanting to measure in such a way as to take into account current viewing habits. Imagine that! There is some nuance here -- mainly in the fact the current TV season was sold through to advertisers based on live viewing only. There's also concern that since Nielsen's local ratings measure who watched programming, instead of who is watching the commercials, adding in additional data from a segment not as likely to be viewing commercials is problematic.

However, at some point, as I've said before, local TV stations have every right to monetize their real audience -- and a real audience, these days, means everyone who watched a show within a reasonable amount of time, so that the advertising is still relevant.

If you think today's announcement means Nielsen is caving, I think the better phrasing is "making a short-term concession." In the letter, Nielsen strongly asserts why it is right to be shifting the way it reports local viewing data, and, frankly, the letter states facts that any media buyer worth his or her salt should know. Here are just some: DVR playback is increasing (witness the DVR numbers so far this season for Fox's "House"); factors such as program and daypart can affect audience; DVR viewers tend "to be younger and more upscale"; and "using Live Only ratings data can potentially lead to flaws in planning and buying and distortion of TV performance, impacting consumer behavior." Ya think?

That said, I've a feeling that some advertisers and agencies will continue to fight Nielsen's attempt at long-term change, even as they cheer its continuation of live ratings. It's a tough market out there, full of cost pressures and radical shifts in viewing behavior. Showing that audiences are actually larger than is currently being measured could raise ad rates, even if, for some, viewing via DVR is partly about skipping through the commericials. In this environment, Nielsen -- which hasn't helped itself historically because it's been slow to change -- makes a perfect whipping boy.

Previous coverage of Nielsen at BNET Media:

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