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Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The Trouble With Nielsen

In 1955, film director Alfred Hitchcock, at the height of his popularity, released a charming comedy called "The Trouble with Harry". It was a Black comedy that was a box office flop but today is best known for being Shirley MacLaine's film debut. A real departure for Hitchcock, it was very thin on plot. The story centered on a body found in the beautiful Vermont countryside in fall. Several villagers feel that they may have be responsible for the person's (Harry's) death and the body is moved about town in a comedy or errors to keep the corpse from the police.

Today, I chose the title for this piece as a parody of that film as Nielsen seems to be dragging the corpse of broadcast ratings around the landscape. Look, Nielsen has a tough job these days and I am not going to totally trash them. To me, they are similar to the position of a company painting a very long bridge. As soon as you finish the job which takes a few years, it is time to paint the other end of the bridge again. Except with Nielsen, it gets more complicated. Now, with the passage of a few years, the bridge has off ramps leading to little islands called Hulu, You Tube, off shore sites, Netflix, new cable channels and these islands are getting mysteriously bigger. Traffic on the bridge is increasing but many people do not cross the bridge directly but stop at these many new way stations. Your old method of painting the bridge from west to east doesn't work anymore and your crew cannot handle it. But you are the only painting contractor in the area so you try and muddle through.

It is obvious that what Nielsen is doing today in local markets is inadequate. Several years back, I attended a session hosted by Nielsen where they presented their Local People Meter (LPM) methodology to a large group of agency media personnel. As I was leaving, I told someone at the session that is was a good step forward in local markets. He agreed but then said, "this is fine, but Nielsen is fighting the last war."

Think about that for a moment. The People Meter rolled out nationally in Fall, 1986. There we were more than a quarter century later seeing roughly the same methodology being implemented in very large local markets. A lot changed in that quarter century. Still, many of us welcomed LPM. Think of the cable players in particular. For a decade at least, on a local market basis, Nielsen had delivered to them what can charitably be called a memorable shafting. Now, in each rating book, many new cable channels emerge with measurable ratings. But beyond market 25, we still have the household meter and in the small markets below market #67 or so, we use the diary method which was developed in 1950 and is totally out of tune with viewing in 2009.

As we write, people argue about nuances of the methodology. And, sadly, broadcast negotiators go into meetings and try and defend their delivery against brain dead clients who want to know why the seven spots purchased in early fringe did not post according to forecasts. Good station people face the same fate. It is a waste of energy and a fools errand.

Everyone misses the real point. It is the elephant in the room that few of us have the guts to acknowledge. The simple truth is that people do not see commercials with the frequency that they once did. End of discussion! When 31% of America has a time shifting device (DVR), when everyone has an itchy trigger figure on their remote, when Netflix continues to grow as does Hulu and ABC.com and Fox.com, the probability of your message being seen is declining daily. Nielsen cannot possibly stay ahead of such a Herculean task.

Many people say to me that all of this is fine, but Nielsen is the currency that we use. True, but let's talk for a moment about currencies. The greatest currency expert who ever lived was an inimitable character named Dr. Franz Pick. Born in Bohemia sometime in the 1890's, Pick taught currency theory at the Sorbonne for years but had to hide from the Nazis during World War II. He stayed on in France and became the paymaster of the Resistance right through June, 1945. He then came to
America and published Pick's World Currency Report each year until his death in the early 1980's. I remember as a struggling young graduate student trying to find the money to buy a copy.

Pick was wildly opinionated and had no respect for politicians and few central bankers. All, he felt gutted the currency via inflation for political purposes. But, he knew currencies better than anyone. Just before he passed on, he wrote one last book (of 24) and was interviewed in several publications. When asked for long term prospects of major currencies he said "All currencies die." Check it out; it is undeniably true. Well, if Dr. Pick worked in broadcast media research, he would be writing the epitaph for Nielsen right now. They have not been all that bad in the aggregate but the scope of their challenge today is breathtaking and a shift from diary to household meter in some markets and a move from household meter to LPM in the larger ones is a textbook example of too little, too late.

What we have needed forever are commercial ratings, not wildly inflated program ratings. By the time we get them, our mythical bridge will have 150 off-ramps and be badly in need of a completely new coat of paint.

If you would like to contact Don Cole directly, you can reach him at doncolemedia@gmail.com

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