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Are Networks Bamboozling Nielsen?

Published on February 02, 2012

“Smart commercial buyers know when the ratings are being spun,” observed the New York Times , “and they insist on paying for the real ratings.” But if Nielsen can be fooled, likely, so can media buyers when they see decent ratings for a property like "I Hate My Teenage Daughter."

The Times went on to describe some real-world stories and tactics that networks are using to pad their Nielsen ratings:

  • ABC’s labeling four of its five “Good Morning America” broadcasts “special programming” between Christmas and New Years 2011, such that only the highest-rated Monday broadcast counted
  • NBC’s presenting the January 23 Republican primary debate as an edition of the low-rated “Rock Center with Brian Williams,” which doubled the show’s usual audience, to 7.1 million
  • Strategically placing national commercials; a show receives national ratings from Nielsen only until the last national commercial is broadcast. So ABC front-loads its half-hour “Nightline” with national commercials, catching viewers before they go to bed, and relegates local advertising to the last half.
  • Running into the next hour with popular shows; Fox in December ran two minutes long with its high-rated “The X Factor,” which inflated the ratings for the low-rated “I Hate My Teenage Daughter.”

None of these tactics save a show, but they do give a network “bragging rights.”  A Nielsen employee (on grounds of anonymity) told the Times that the company has standards about these practices, but that they are rarely enforced beyond the occasional stern letter. The networks are remorseless: one program executive said (also on grounds of anonymity) “You do everything you can, as long as you can,” said the network program executive. “And then [Nielsen] slap[s] your hand.”