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This post is a follow-up on A word on ratings and the "25-54" demo and the recent "controversy" over my post pointing out that TVNewser had taken to using ratings data that inflates the ratings for Countdown with Keith Olbermann. Brian Stelter of TVNewser has argued that my claim that he is "inflating" ratings data is "false" and demanded a "correction" yet subsequently admitted in an email (published in the comments section of my post) that he IS using a new type of ratings data provided by Nielsen Media Research called "Live Plus" which does, in fact, inflate the ratings data for Countdown. That he is also inflating the ratings data for other cable news shows is beside the point. The real issue is his failure to disclose his switch from "Live" to "Live Plus" ratings, to footnote his ratings posts to indicate that he is reporting "Live Plus" data from Nielsen Media Research and his justification for the surreptitious ratings switcheroo - that MSNBC prefers to use "Live Plus Same Day" ratings to evaluate Keith Olbermann's "success". A secondary issue is the false implication that "Live Plus" ratings are some agreed upon standard of how to measure viewership. In fact, the complete opposite is the case as we shall see.
My concern is not whether Live or Live Plus are better measures of the audience for a TV show but the much heralded "journalistic integrity" of TVNewser - or lack of it - where all Brian has is his "credibility".
The new "Live Plus" ratings, which can include Live Plus Same Day and Live Plus 7 (there has also been talk of Live Plus Three), are being promoted in an attempt by SOME television networks to justify charging more money in the "upfronts" where networks sell a guaranteed number of viewers to advertisers. The "Tivo Effect" has compounded the long-term ratings decline of the major networks (other factors include the rise of the Fox network, more cable channels, the internet, video gaming, etc.). "Live Plus" is an attempt to account for viewers who are no longer watching the broadcast television or doing so in real-time.
From reading Brian's comments on Olbermann Watch and the post he linked to Inside Cable News, you might get the idea that "Live Plus" is simple arithmetic - adding "actual" live viewers to the number of "actual" Tivo viewers who playback a show within 24 hours of recording the show. In fact, "live" viewers has, for the past 20 years, not actually measured live viewers but "Live Plus VCR", a standard pushed by the networks long ago. As it turned out, one-third of shows recorded on VCR are never watched and the commercials are skipped in two-thirds of those that are watched. Nielsen came up with a complex algorithm meant to translate the remainder into some approximation between VCR viewers and live viewers and the advertisers have been complaining ever since.
With more options, things have become even more complicated. Nielsen Media Research recently announced it will "develop and deploy technology to measure the new ways consumers are watching television, such as on the Internet, outside the home, and via cell phones, iPods and other personal, mobile devices."
This only serves to highlight the many misperceptions about how Nielsen gathers and reports ratings data. It is not the purpose of this article to clarify them but simply note that the old-fashioned notion of a Nielsen family scribbling in a daily diary has been replaced for many "Nielsen families" by Local People Meters which is used in the largest markets, Set-Meters which are used in larger, middle-sized markets which include various versions of an "Active/Passive meter", and paper and internet diaries in smaller, middle-sized markets. Paper diaries are still used exclusively in the smaller markets. Some of these measuring tools require viewers to push buttons on devices or fill out forms to note how many viewers are in the room when a show is on the TV. Typically, the more sophisticated the technology the more accurate the viewer behavior information; more information is captured and reported in larger markets, primarily on the east and west coasts.
The controversy over "Live Plus" ratings began in earnest seven months ago when Nielsen first began to offer an expanded ratings system with three sets of ratings: "traditional live ratings; "live plus same-day," which accounts for same-day DVR viewing; and, most controversially, "live plus seven days," which accounts for recording then watching shows within a week of their original airings."
The ad buyers challenged this , asking "whether any viewing after the date intended is worth anything to...marketers that prefer to buy commercial time on Thursday nights, like retailers, automakers and movie studios, all of them seeking to stimulate demand for the coming weekend." The bargaining between the networks and advertisers began in earnest shortly thereafter, in anticipation of the 2006-07 "upfronts" period this past May. ABC, which is in the strongest negotiating position with shows like "Desperate Housewives", "Lost" and "Gray's Anatomy", was the first network to announce that it would not sell spots to companies that did not use the new Nielsen data. Ad buyers have argued that since there is no way of knowing how many DVR users are skipping commercials these recorded shows should not be factored into ad prices. Shortly after publishing the "Live Plus" data, Nielsen admitted there were strange anomalies in the data. Nielsen has acknowledged that their sample set of DVR viewers is too small and thus the data is causing "aberrations" Meanwhile, Nielsen has already laid the groundwork for an entirely new ratings paradigm based on "commercial ratings" which will attempt to measure how many viewers are actually watching a particular minute during which an advertisement is being aired (with adjustments for time-shifted viewing). Clearly "Live Plus" ratings are not only NOT an agreed upon standard but are highly controversial. Further, the networks (including NBC Universal which owns MSNBC) are attempting to sell ads based on the "Live Plus Seven" ratings data not "Live Plus Same Day" which Brian now says he is using in his ratings reports.
Maybe what TVNewser should really be reporting is the ad rates being charged by the cable news networks, how much inventory they are selling, what their total revenue is from ad sales, what their total revenue is from cable provider fees, what their cost structures are like, and their EBITDA numbers. After all, ratings are merely a proxy for financial results. But don't hold your breath because Fox News is, by far and away, the winner in the one category that actually counts in the TV business.
Nate Anderson at arstechnica provides an excellent summary of the Live Plus controversy:
Television ratings are big business. They are the basis for the ad rates set by television networks and paid by ad agencies, and are therefore often a source of contention between the two groups, which have diametrically opposed goals (charge more money vs. spend less money). Ratings, for obvious reasons, are turned over to a third party who is charged with providing objective information that both groups can trust. In the world of television, that company is Nielsen Media Research, and they have recently kicked up a bit of controversy between the networks and the ad agencies over the subject of time-shifted content...Networks enjoy the bump in ratings they get when DVR is measured, but the advertisers aren't so happy. Why? Because they know that most DVR users skip the commercials.
It is also worth mentioning that based on the demographics of Tivo owners (younger, more affluent, etc.), factoring in DVR usage will tend to give a bigger bump to a show with a larger percentage of its audience in the younger demos (read: Countdown with Keith Olbermann).
The efforts of the networks to push Live Plus has not gone well. By the end of May, Ad Week was reporting that negotiations in the upfront market had stalled over whether to use "Live Plus 7" ratings data in pricing ads:
"Everybody's talking, but nobody is listening," said one network sales executive. "Live Plus 7 is the big hurdle. The agencies are pretty dug in on the side that says Live Plus 7 should not be used at all, while all the networks are taking a strong position on the opposite side. It feels like all the agencies have been talking with one another, because they are all taking the same position."
However this battle settles out, one thing is clear - the "Live Plus" controversy involves the big broadcast networks selling prime-time television programming and the haggling has been over whether to use "Live" or "Live Plus 7" ratings data. The ratings data now being used by TVNewser, "Live Plus Same Day" has received scant mention in the coverage of this ongoing debate and is not, in fact, used to sell ads that reach the majority of cable news viewers. The reason for this is simple - Fox News reaches a large majority of the cable news viewing audience and they do not believe that "Live Plus" ratings data is relevent to news viewing so they do not charge for ads using that data:
Paul Rittenberg, SVP Sales for Fox News Channel, recently told Jack Meyers of Media Village:
"Our whole sales pitch is news viewing is live," says Rittenberg. "There is effectively no difference in live and live plus one. We are willing to use whatever data advertisers want. If that shifts money our way it will be great."
As Rittenberg points out, there is currently no big difference between Live and Live Plus Same Day - the post I cited showed a difference of 5,000 viewers for Olbermann - although many expect the difference to grow as more DVRs are sold and Nielsen has more DVR owners in its sample set. So, there is nothing WRONG with using the Live Plus Same Day numbers as is the case these days at TVN. The problem is when you are using one set of data one day and a different set the other day without making sure your readers are fully informed as to the change and the basis for making the change. Worse still is when you are making month-on-month and quarter-on-quarter comparisons and not being clear which sets of data you are comparing or referencing from post to post and day to day.
It may be there but...
I went back through the TVN archives to December 1, 2005 looking for a post that announces the switch from Live to Live Plus ratings data (Nielsen began releasing Live Plus ratings in December 2005). I could not find one. I did ask Brian to provide a link to such an announcement but he declined to respond. A TVN apologist in the OlbyWatch comments section claimed that Brian DID disclose the change but has yet to provide a link supporting his claim.
I did find one post from March 2006, A Note About Ratings Data , which said "Ratings data can be sliced a thousand different ways" and that "the difference between time period data and program data" are the two most common ways. Brian promised "to mention the specific type of data in all posts." From what I could find, since this post, Brian RARELY indicates the type of data he is parsing to form the claims put forward in his dramatic ratings headlines. Likewise, there is no footnote or explanation that ratings data in more recent posts is based on Live Plus not Live ratings data.
Now, if someone out there does come across a post where TVN Is discussing his embrace of Live Plus ratings data please post a link in the comments section below and I will update this post accordingly. That said, to the best of my knowledge TVN has not disclosed when or why he made the switch from Live to Live Plus. Regardless of whether he has ever mentioned this, it is certainly the case that the ratings post I linked the other day contained no disclaimer about Live Plus ratings data.
In the meantime, I will stand on my position that TVNewser is inflating the ratings for Countdown with Keith Olbermann. Based on his emails where he explains his rationale for using Live Plus ratings (he said it's how MSNBC evaluates the "success" of Olbermann), I believe it is fair to say that the use of Live Plus came as a result of some communications with executives at MSNBC. In other words, yet another example of Brian playing fast and loose with the information he is publishing at the behest of television executives from networks who feed him information, and say nice things about him on their own networks and in the press.
Brian may have a legitimate point that since his use of Live Plus ratings inflates ALL of the ratings data it is misleading to imply that he is ONLY inflating the ratings for Countdown. It was not, however, my intention to mislead anyone. And that is not even close to my statement being "false". From reading the post I linked or any other posts that I could find on his site, there is no way this reader would know why his numbers did not match up with the live ratings data that he has used since he first began publishing ratings data and which are still the only accepted standard in the industry. His providing a link to a post from a third-party (ICN) only highlights the problem. He KNEW that his use of Live Plus data was a source of confusion for readers and yet he failed to clarify the matter on his site. Now he wants to complain because his lack of clarity has caused further confusion.
It seems to me that Brian should be concerned that readers are confused about his selective use of ratings data. I would recommend that he spend less time complaining on this site and more time disclosing which documents he is using as his source (a link to a scanned copy each day would be nice) and make it a point to footnote his ratings to make clear when he is using Live, Live Plus One, Live Plus Seven, Period Data and Program data. Until he starts to properly source and footnote his data, he has no grounds for whining that his sloppy presentation of ratings information is challenged.
I trust this post sufficiently clarifies the issue.