Media companies, testing alternative measurement options, are loosening Nielsen’s grip on the ecosystem

Broadcasters and marketers are testing different yardsticks in 2022.
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Francis Scialabba

· 5 min read

Media companies using Nielsen got burned a year ago. Now, they could be finally getting revenge.

Broadcasters are building out ways for marketers to opt out of Nielsen’s measurement yardstick and use other measurement companies’ products. NBCUniversal,  WarnerMedia, and ViacomCBS—which together commanded more than $10 billion in advertising sales last year alone—are each running tests in the first half of the year to learn about the viability of currencies that aren’t Nielsen’s ahead of the 2022 upfronts.

This month, NBCUniversal announced it had selected iSpot.TV—a company that measures TV ad impressions and performance using data from smart TVs, set-top boxes, and more—as a “preferred” alternative measurement partner; Publicis Media will begin testing iSpot’s measurement almost immediately, during both the Winter Olympics and Super Bowl LVI.

The week prior, WarnerMedia announced that three measurement companies—iSpot, Comscore, and VideoAmp—would begin providing audience reach and frequency measurement during a six-month test period beginning at the end of January. Meanwhile, ViacomCBS is working with Dentsu to test VideoAmp’s cross-platform measurement in the first quarter of 2022, it previously said in December.

The flurry of tests in the first half of the year are intended to collect enough information so that marketers could use alternative currencies to buy television advertising inventory as soon as this upfront season. This means that, like it or not, Nielsen’s singular chokehold on the television industry is officially coming to an end.

“It’s not about taking out Nielsen and bringing in another player—it really is about Nielsen and a number of other currency players that we will work with as we move ahead,” Kelly Abcarian, a former Nielsen executive turned EVP of measurement and impact at NBCUniversal, told Marketing Brew.

The turning point

Television broadcasters say Nielsen ratings may always have a place in the ecosystem. However, growing interest in alternative measurement had been simmering for years, especially from agencies that may have been frustrated by some limitations with existing measurement options.

It finally bubbled over last summer when the Media Rating Council, an org that audits media measurement companies, stripped independent accreditation from Nielsen’s national TV service and two local market services. That temporary de-accreditation only happened after a months-long crusade from television industry group the Video Advertising Bureau, which had presented evidence calling Nielsen’s official measurement figures into question. (It’s worth noting that most major broadcasters are all members of the VAB.)

This decision marked an inflection point that prompted broadcasters to envision, for a brief moment, a world without Nielsen at its center.

As Andrea Zapata, head of research, data, and insights for WarnerMedia ad sales, explained, “When that moment with MRC happened, it became an opportunity to ask, what do we want to measure?” Just as important was the follow-up question: If WarnerMedia were not able to use Nielsen, which other companies would it use?

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What followed was a flurry of testing throughout the fall. WarnerMedia solicited feedback from agencies about what they wanted and began to evaluate pitches from measurement providers, while NBCUniversal publicly encouraged the TV industry to declare “measurement independence” as it solicited proposals from other measurement companies.

By September, ViacomCBS announced that it would work with VideoAmp to provide an alternative currency to guarantee media campaigns against age and gender demographics.

Meanwhile, OpenAP, the advanced-TV consortium of which most major broadcasters are a part, built out a framework to help make alternative measurement easier. Through it, content providers can share their own campaign exposure data back to third-party measurement companies so they can more accurately measure audiences.

The initiatives were borne both from the sudden opportunity that followed Nielsen’s loss of accreditation, and long-standing concerns about losing ad dollars to measurement-robust digital platforms like Facebook. Once broadcasters reviewed proposals and were convinced the technology was legit, making alternative measurement an option for advertisers was a no-brainer.

“Cross-platform is ready to go today. We don’t need to wait for 2024 to be able to solve for cross-screen [measurement],” Abcarian said in what appeared to be a not-so-subtle dig at Nielsen’s timeline to fully roll out Nielsen One, its “cross-media” platform. “The consumer is moving quickly. Technology is evolving rapidly. We need to keep up and stop being held back by a legacy framework that causes us to fall way behind the consumer.”

Not so fast…

But Nielsen will not go quietly into the night, and the company has seemingly rushed to shore up its own measurement options to compete more directly with its rivals.

After pledging to fix issues that prompted the company’s de-accreditation this fall, Nielsen has moved fast to shore up some of its other measurement tools, which included bringing in big data to supplement its panel measurement and debuting measurement tools for connected TVs, among other updates.

All of this is aimed at laddering up into Nielsen One, the company’s holy grail. The new platform will get its own test this quarter that will, in its own way, compete with the simultaneous tests of rivals; Disney and Magna are among the companies testing the technology.

But there’s competition there, too. Earlier this month, rival Comscore announced its own cross-platform measurement solution, Comscore Everywhere, which is positioned as a direct competitor with Nielsen One.

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