It seemed like a simple enough idea: Why not try to track whether people watch TV commercials?
After all, Nielsen has been counting how many people watch certain TV shows for decades. So in June, the ratings agency announced it would start rating commercials, beginning next month.
But that announcement has set off a battle worthy of a Survivor episode, with just about everyone in the TV and advertising businesses disagreeing over how Nielsen should measure ad viewership. Nielsen is hearing some of the loudest complaints from the cable TV industry, who argue that that some of the quirks of their business -- including regional ads in sports and crawler ads along the bottom of the screen -- make their ads harder to measure.
And now, Nielsen's project has slowed to a crawl. Unable to resolving the infighting, it plans to delay releasing the new ratings until December.
And in an effort to help ease some objections to the new ratings, Nielsen has decided to give the new data away for free in the first year. It is also now calling the new effort an experiment and will let the networks choose whether to have their commercials rated or not.
"It's certainly fair to say that this hasn't been without some controversy," said Sara Erichson, general manager of national services at Nielsen. "We've been spending a tremendous amount of time talking to all of our clients."
Advertisers, who spend about US$70 billion a year on television commercials, have been particularly concerned about what they are getting for their money, as more people record shows on TiVos and other digital video recorders (DVRs), allowing them to fast-forward quickly through their spots.
Advertisers now have an alternative, too, giving them a bit of leverage in their demands for better information -- which they can now get on the Internet, where they can count mouse-clicks as a sign of an ad's success.
"Advertisers have been asking for years for a metric that is more accurate," said Jason Maltby, president of national broadcast at MindShare, an ad agency owned by the WPP Group. "We would all agree that the current system of program ratings is not going to work going forward."
However there are conflicting agendas. Broadcast and cable companies disagree on how to most accurately measure ad viewership. Ad agencies, which buy TV time for advertisers, want better data, but do not want to spend a lot for it. And Nielsen, a unit of VNU NV, a public media company based in the Netherlands, is concerned about angering its biggest clients, the television networks.
Indeed, "a loss of one or more of Nielsen's largest clients would adversely affect Nielsen Media Research's prospects," the company's last annual report says. Ad agencies and TV networks have traditionally negotiated commercial prices using ratings that show how many people, on average, watch an entire program, including commercials. The new ratings being contemplated would capture the average number of viewers watching the commercials for each show.
They track viewership using monitors in thousands of homes that show which station is on. Nielsen depends on viewers to push a button to indicate when they're leaving the room.
By most accounts, the battle over the commercial ratings began in May, at the so-called TV upfronts, where advertisers buy airtime for the upcoming TV season.