TV networks engaging in unethical viewership inflation to cheat ratings system

As over-the-top streaming services continue to steal subscribers away from traditional cable packages, TV networks are using using unethical practices to keep their ratings up.

Pay TV subscribership continues to decline at an ever-increasing rate
(Source: Business Insider/MoffetNathanson)

In the television world, higher ratings mean you can charge advertisers more to run their commercials. But what do you do when your ratings are unequivocally down? You cheat the system, a Wall Street Journal article reports.

When networks submit their ratings to Nielsen, the strikingly simple system averages programs based on their title. A title misspelling looks like an entirely new show in their system, and as such, can be a seemingly innocent way to keep days of low viewership from affecting their overall averages.

An example? NBC Nightly News over 2017’s Memorial Day weekend, when less people were watching TV across the board. The Comcast-owned network changed their program’s title to be “NBC Nitely News,” thus keeping it from negatively impacting their overall numbers and “dramatically improving the show’s average viewership that week.” The network has misspelled programs 14 times since the beginning of the 2016-17 television season last fall.

NBC isn’t the only offender. ABC totals seven instances of misspelled “Wrld New Tonite,” and CBS counts 12 airings of “CBS Evening Nws” during this season.

Nielsen allows program name changes, but only in certain instances, typically reserved for special editions of programs like during holidays or other tent-pole events. A spokesperson for NBC said they broke no news. “As is standard industry practice, our broadcast is retitled when there are pre-emptions and inconsistencies or irregularities in the schedule, which can include holiday weekends and special sporting events,” they told the WSJ.

The WSJ report also identifies some other opportunities for strategic exploitation of Nielsen’s system. The ratings giant only counts viewers up until the last commercial break; TV networks can place their final commercials right before an anticipated decline in viewership to prevent that dip from appearing in their ratings. Networks can also run additional airings of shows and add those viewers to the original broadcast’s tally.

What does this mean for the advertising industry?

A number of key stakeholders could be impacted by Nielsen’s lax standards for network reporting. First, brands (and ad agencies that work on behalf of the brands) could be paying more than their ad spots are worth due to tactically-inflated viewership numbers. According to the WSJ report, advertisers are welcome to inquire about any missing numbers or metric discrepancies – but that requires a level of skepticism, when brands and agencies should be able to trust their publishers in the first place.

OTT players could serve to benefit from the reporting issues. They already have a leg up over traditional due to the quick availability of analytics on digital platforms. Promising increased transparency to brands and agencies could result in buyers deciding to shift more spend over to digital. Global digital spend is already expected to surpass TV ad spend for the first time in 2017, according to lead marketing agency IPG.

And finally, Nielsen’s reputation only serves to be hurt by these revelations. Nielsen reportedly plans to hold a meeting with key TV industry representatives as early as this week to address the issue.