Nielsen Admits That A Software Glitch Screwed Up TV Ratings For Months

Entertainment Writer
10.12.14 22 Comments

So premiere week on television is behind us and we’ve all read the articles picking the winners and losers according to their ratings, a normal practice every year. The big difference this year is that the ratings we were basing all of this on might be false. This is due to a glitch with Nielsen and their method of measuring ratings across network television. From The New York Times:

Nielsen, the television research firm, acknowledged on Friday that it had been reporting inaccurate ratings for the broadcast networks for the last seven months, a mistake that raises questions about the company’s increasingly criticized system for measuring TV audiences.

The error wound up benefiting one network, ABC, while negatively affecting the others, according to people briefed on the problem. In a telephone call with reporters, Nielsen executives would not confirm that it had resulted in added viewers for ABC, saying they could not discuss individual clients.

An ABC executive confirmed that the error had improved the network’s ratings. As for Nielsen, its executives played down the discrepancy in viewing totals, saying they fell between 0.1 percent and 0.25 percent of the viewing totals.

So that means shows like Mulaney probably did really well, right? Not really. It doesn’t even mean that TV ratings were screwed up in terms of where they actually landed in the rankings.

Where this comes into play is the way advertisers determine what they’re going to pay to networks for their ads and the revenue that comes with it. Seven months of inaccurate statistics is pretty bad if you’re trying to portray your method as the industry standard and have $70 billion at stake. Nielsen is already under fire for being out of touch or unfair to the ways that viewers actually watch television programming. It’s a chink in the armor:

The company has come under increased pressure in recent years as television and advertising executives have called its methodology antiquated and questioned its ability to measure the ways people watch television today, whether on a traditional TV set in the living room or on a mobile phone on the fly. A range of outsiders, including Rentrak and comScore, are challenging Nielsen’s dominance by introducing methods to track TV viewing in the digital age.

Brian Wieser, a media analyst with Pivotal Research, said Nielsen was struggling on multiple fronts. “You’ve got a ‘death of TV’ fear in general, you have the Rentrak competitiveness issue, and you have the quality and integrity of the data issue,” Mr. Wieser said.

“Any one of those three things could come up at any time,” he added, “but for those to hit you all at the same time, wow.” (via)

The thing I’ll never understand about television ratings and box office receipts for movies is how normal people and fans tout them like it is a competition of quality. There are plenty of people that have moved past that, but there’s still a lot who trumpet the numbers around like they won the lottery. There’s a need to report on it and cover the business side of entertainment, but there needs to be some sort of shift away that it actually matters in connection to a show being “good.”

Nielsen announced that they will adjust the ratings dating back to the first premiere date in August and that all ratings from Friday, October 10th are correct following a fix for the glitch.

(Via New York Times / The Hollywood Reporter)

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