OPINION11 September 2009

Mixed messages from new TV industry consortium

News Opinion

A coalition of US media buyers, TV broadcasters and advertisers has stressed that it doesn’t intend to replace Nielsen’s existing rating system, but it is actively looking for another way to measure television viewing. Its message is muddled.

The heads of research from the 14 CIMM founder members hosted a conference call last night explaining the group’s position, and were at pains to point out that their main aim was “to fund the development of a new measurement system” and “not about establishing a competitor to Nielsen”. Clear?

NBC Universal’s head of research Alan Wurtzel opened the call claiming: “The misperception is that CIMM was developed to provide an alternative to Nielsen. That couldn’t be further from the truth.” He then explained that the consortium’s aim was to “provide an opportunity for the various constituents of the media business to initially work together on projects to develop innovative measurement methods”. So: CIMM is not planning to replace Nielsen’s system in the marketplace but is actively funding the hunt for what could become its eventual successor.

Wurtzel said the association will issue requests for proposals from agencies this year to develop “innovative” solutions, and will fund the work to boot but, again, it isn’t trying to replace Nielsen.

“Members all have some skin in the game,” he continued, “This is all about our businesses and the billions of dollars that ride on accurate measurement.” It is time, Wurtzel said, “to take our future into our own hands”.

The CIMM panel again stressed that its position was more about funding innovation than replacing Nielsen, and that the organisation hoped to be a “big tent” where the media research industry could gather and address their concerns over various issues. Some of these include the need for “more granular TV measurement and more granular and accurate internet”. In the future it plans to tackle mobile measurement too, but that is no reflection on the current Nielsen-dominated market. In fact, Wurtzel said, the formation of CIMM “was never really about Nielsen”. Really?

So while CIMM isn’t trying to usurp Nielsen, it is looking for something new and fresh to measure TV viewing figures. What happens if some of the biggest names in the industry – some of whom have ploughed seven-figure sums into the initiative – unearth the system they have been looking for?

CBS Corporation’s chief research officer Dave Poltrack said that CIMM would not be endorsing any technology and “whether [any new system] gets commercialised is up to whoever develops it”. The panel closed ranks and backed him on this point – but as with so many aspects of CIMM’s launch, more questions than answers emerged. Are this group of TV heavyweights really prepared to spend millions of dollars funding the development of their ideal measurement system only to leave it on the shelf?

On the practical side of things, apart from Nielsen, which companies would have the clout to implement any new measurement system? TNS’s parent company WPP is one of the consortium’s founders and has experience in measuring TV in other parts of the world, although its participation in any CIMM-funded scheme could be seen as a conflict of interests. Arbitron has made noises about TV measurement in the past, and earlier this year launched a new service to measure out-of-home viewing, but could it roll out a regular national service?

And that would leave Nielsen. CIMM has not shut the door on the ratings giant and has said: “If they want to apply, we’ll consider their application like anyone else’s.” Its inconceivable that Nielsen would risk its grip on the US ratings market by not getting involved with CIMM at some level and it has the size and strength to develop and implement the sort of system the consortium is looking for, meaning that the marriage of convenience between the firm and TV industry may have plenty of years in it left.