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Nielsen CEO David Kenny Says Company Numbers Still Matter

How did the simple act of counting viewers become so controversial? David Kenny thinks he knows.

The Nielsen CEO has been under fire for months, ever since some of his company’s biggest clients – national television networks – began complaining about how Nielsen compiled viewership during the coronavirus pandemic. . They still complain. And Nielsen faces a host of upstart rivals with whom the networks are striking new metering deals. But Kenny says he’s not letting their maneuvers get in the way of Nielsen’s future.

“Yes, it’s louder,” he admits.

More clamor could erupt during the “upfront,” when US TV stations try to sell off most of their commercial inventory for their next programming cycle. Nielsen’s measurement of how many people see programs and commercial breaks has long underpinned these sales talks, but in 2022 Nielsen finds itself without industry accreditation, which it lost in September. Now he faces the very real prospect that some of his competitors could take some of his business. Some of the networks are likely to tout their use of so-called “alternative currencies” on Madison Avenue. Already, a top media buyer, Horizon Media, an independent Madison Avenue media agency that works for high-spending clients like Berkshire Hathaway’s Geico and Anheuser-Busch InBev’s Corona, has said it intends to commit to using new currencies in “up to 15% of its offerings.

Even so, Kenny is betting that Nielsen will be around after debut this year, and next year too – even if the traditional TV ratings the company measures start to fade. “People will still care about range and frequency” in the future, he says, but they will search for it with a more precise expression. “We don’t have to do reach and frequency by age and gender. We can do that by income level. We can do this by geographical cuts. He suspects advertisers will start looking at audience share over an entire day, rather than a small slice of the day. Big live events, he says, will likely still have traditional leaderboards for some time to come.

“I’m very sure” that advertisers continue to like Nielsen, he says, and if they do, the outlets courting them will have to keep Nielsen top of mind.

However, the level of resentment between the two parties has decidedly increased in recent months. Nielsen and TV networks once seemed to go together like peanut butter and jelly. For the past few days, they’ve seemed like as likely a combination as peanut butter and mayonnaise.

The networks have long twisted their hands on Nielsen. After all, nobody likes the professor who grades the essay or the final essay. But things seemed to hit a new bump in 2018, when CBS delayed renewing its contract with Nielsen, citing a plethora of rival measurement services and Nielsen’s slow progress in finding ways to count audiences watching videos. on smartphones and other digital screens. The feud had all the cadences heard more generally in a breach of contract between a cable company and a major network.

Further tensions in the Nielsen-TV relationship became visible ahead of the start of the 2020-2021 television season when Nielsen said he wanted to delay the implementation of a new service that would include so-called “out-of-home” audiences. in his broader television tally. visualization. The networks expected the measure to add to their ratings, as it would pick up viewing in hotels, bars and offices. The networks protested and Nielsen relented.

If any Nielsen leader is going to understand their customers, it should be Kenny. He once ran the company that owned Weather Channel and helped set up a digital media agency called Digitas, which he later sold to French advertising giant Publicis Groupe. He therefore knows the pressures that programmers are under, as well as those that advertisers are facing.

“I have a sense of urgency moving forward. I think we need to be up to date on the audience. I think Nielsen was a bit slow,” he says, but he counters that the networks complain about how Nielsen measures are often upset when they act quickly to change how they operate.

The networks may have to face a reckoning of their place in the world of new media, he says, where their once healthy dominance may wane. More and more people are turning to what he calls “unscheduled” programming, compared to the “scheduled” fare that has made TV networks so much money in the past. Nielsen will have to measure everything from time spent with YouTube to attention paid to “creator” sites like Tik Tok or Twitch – and the networks will likely see their share of engagement with consumers decline. “There’s going to be noise from people wanting to stay on scheduled television,” he says, but more and more media executives need to understand that consumption habits are changing irrevocably. “‘As seen on TV’ meant something” to another generation of consumers, adds Kenny. “More so more.”

He believes Nielsen’s longstanding ties to advertisers and the infrastructure already in place will keep him in the mix. “At the end of the day, I think if you have the best audience measurement, and you can audit it and people can bet money on it, and rely on it, you find your way to the end, and so I’m willing to take some noise.He notes that he has received complaint emails from representatives of the network only to have their words distributed to the press before they can even acknowledge receipt. of a recent missive, he says: “I read it in Variety before opening my e-mail… This is unusual.

He wants to defuse such efforts. “What I have to be careful about is not letting it work. If I don’t let it work, it will stop.

Nielsen still has critics, however, and the networks remain at a heightened level of concern. “There’s a real stepping stone to the future” when it comes to industry audience measurement, says Sean Cunningham, CEO of VAB, an industry organization that represents TV networks to the public. advertising community and which has frequently criticized Nielsen lately. month. He believes the traction gained in recent months by Nielsen’s rivals is adding new competition to the mix and forcing all companies to work harder. “We’ve gone from simple to multiple when we talk about money, and we’ll never go back,” he says, acknowledging that Nielsen will likely continue to hold significant influence. “We’re not rooting against Nielsen at all here,” he adds. “We just want them to do it right.”

Kenny thinks Nielsen will. It believes the company will regain accreditation from the Media Rating Council (the MRC has said it is not likely to review the matter until the end of the third quarter at the earliest) and is about to start putting implement a new cross-media measurement system. , Nielsen One, this year. Disney, Publicis Media and Google are among the companies that have helped test it, and Fox recently expanded its work with Nielsen to help it monitor ratings on Tubi, its ad-supported streaming video release. Meanwhile, Nielsen is set to go private, backed by activist investor Elliott Management as well as Brookfield Asset Management, an arrangement that Kenny says will allow him to focus more intensely on the business of the business and trying to speed up his progress.

Elliott and Brookfield did not respond to a request for comment.

Kenny also thinks Nielsen has an advantage over the upstarts. Nielsen measures a wider range of consumers than some of its competitors, he says. Some of the new companies are relying more on automatic content recognition data from smart TVs, which tends to favor more high-income white consumers who have easy access to the internet and credit cards. And yet, he notes, the industry is “full of advertisers who want to reach everyone. There are stores and banks that serve everyone.

Some media companies require able newbies to keep the overall market in mind, not just those who can lean into new technologies more quickly. New measurement companies “need to make sure that ‘their data’ includes everyone,” says Donna Speciale, president of U.S. advertising sales and marketing at TelevisaUnivision, the Spanish-language major media outlet. “You can’t do holistic marketing if the data you’re using isn’t representative of the market.”

This is the kind of debate Kenny would prefer to have. He looks forward to Nielsen measuring all kinds of consumer interactions with video and entertainment, as advertisers and programmers will grapple with many new types of audience behavior in the years to come, including, he, the “metaverse”. “I hope to kind of raise the noise about it,” he says, “because I sincerely believe it serves the industry. People need to start making decisions based on what the public is doing, not based on the economics of who wins and who loses.