10/10/14, "TV Ratings by Nielsen Had Errors for Months,
" Bill Carter, Emily Steel
the television research firm, acknowledged on Friday that it had been
reporting inaccurate ratings for the broadcast networks for the last
a mistake that raises questions about the company’s
increasingly criticized system for measuring TV audiences.
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
ABC executive confirmed that the error had improved the network’s
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.
it remained unclear how the mistake would affect the billions of
advertising dollars based on Nielsen’s ratings
, as well as the company’s
reputation. And several television and advertising executives expressed
degrees of anger and incredulity at both the incorrect ratings and the
amount of time — seven months — it had taken to discover the problem.
ratings are the currency of the business,” said Alan Wurtzel, who heads
research at NBC. “Any time that currency is under suspicion it’s a
Schwartz, a managing partner in charge of research at WPP’s GroupM, the
world’s largest media buying group, said it was a credibility issue for
Nielsen. “You look at Nielsen as the gold standard for currency,” Mr.
Schwartz said. “When you introduce these errors on systems that were
working fine in the past, you start looking at the numbers a little bit
closer to see if there is anything else occurring that we haven’t
has long reigned as the main source that the entertainment industry
uses to measure TV audiences, and its ratings are the currency on which
nearly $70 billion in advertising dollars are traded each year in 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.
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.”
shows are judged by small fractions of ratings points and perceptions
of a show’s success or failure are often determined by whether the show
gained or lost as little as a tenth of a point. In one example that will
surely be raised, ABC News made headlines this last week by surpassing
NBC News’s evening broadcast for the first time in six years. NBC will
undoubtedly question those results now, especially because it has noted
for months that ABC began closing the ratings gap in April — or one
month after the pro-ABC error affected Nielsen’s system.
if the ABC gains were entirely legitimate, they now have a shadow over
them. ABC issued a statement on Friday saying that despite the error,
the network was confident that it would maintain the ratings momentum
that its programming has seen in the opening weeks of the new television
Nielsen executives Pat McDonough and Steve Hasker said repeatedly in
their news conference on Friday that the incorrect ratings — which had
affected every program on ABC, not just the ones in prime time — fell
“well within the tolerance of statistical error.” They said any changes
in numbers or the rankings of programs would be largely insignificant
and would be corrected when Nielsen issues new ratings on Monday.
in a statement sent to clients, the company said, “In the vast majority
of cases the impact is small, but in a handful of cases the impact is
Nielsen executives emphasized that ABC had nothing to do with the
incorrect ratings and blamed a new software program that was introduced
The mistakes affected something called “all other tuning,” an
arcane part of the measurement of broadcast ratings (cable network
ratings are unaffected).
Hasker said in the phone call on Friday that the company had first
detected the discrepancy itself, a point challenged by several
executives at the broadcast networks.
error was most noticeable in changes in reported ratings between the
first available numbers — which arrive each morning — and the more
complete “fast national” numbers, which arrive in the late afternoon.
Network executives, including those at ABC, began to notice this fall
that ABC’s programs were frequently showing improvement in the second
daily accounting — something that usually happens only with the biggest
for example, detected on the first night of the new television season
that ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars,” a show that has been in decline for
years, got a bump up in the ratings in the afternoon rankings, even
though two big ABC-affiliated stations had not even carried the show the
examining its records, Nielsen said it had found the software flaw and
traced it back to March. The reason it was detected only recently, Mr.
Hasker said, was because of the heightened attention to the flood of
original programs in the new television season.
says it intends to recalibrate its ratings starting only from Aug. 18,
not all the way back to March 2,
when the error was introduced to the
system, Ms. McDonough said. If specific clients ask for detailed
breakdowns for discrepancies during the earlier months, Nielsen will
work with them, Ms. McDonough said.
Wurtzel said NBC would press Nielsen for more information. “I’m asking
for it,” he said. “How do we ever begin to do any kind of tracking or
historical analysis if you can’t get accurate data?” Advertising clients
are also likely to have difficult questions for Nielsen.
Sirkin, executive vice president of global research at the Publicis
Groupe’s Starcom MediaVest Group, said a big issue for advertisers was
that it had taken so long for Nielsen to alert them to the problem. “The
big concern on our part is that this happened, and it has happened for
months, and nobody noticed,” Ms. Sirkin said. “That is scary because we
pay millions of dollars for Nielsen to do this complicated thing, but
that is what their job is.”"
"A version of this article appears in print on October 11, 2014, on page B1 of the New York edition."...