“The Walking Dead.” “Keeping Up with the Kardashians.” “NCIS: New Orleans.” They all are once-popular TV shows that recently received cancellation announcements for one reason or another.
Programs go off the air every year for a multitude of reasons, from lack of audience enthusiasm to actor and screenwriter burnout. However, the major networks are now uneasy about a more nefarious, contrived reason: Miscalculations from the industry powers that be. Rightfully so.
Nielsen, the only company recognized by the Media Ratings Council — a government-founded organization that helps measure the popularity of TV shows — for TV audience measurement recently admitted to significantly underestimating view counts. The empirical data suggest this mistake costs the industry millions to billions of advertising revenue, but it also may have threatened the life and trajectory of scores of America’s favorite shows.
The truth is that Nielsen has been just like the zombies on “The Walking Dead.” Much like some of the storylines of these beloved programs, it has been walking endlessly through time without acknowledging or adapting to the changes and innovations that have altered the landscape of its industry.
This is not the first time Nielsen miscounted program viewership. In 2014, the company acknowledged it reported inaccurate ratings to networks for seven full months. In 2019, CBS even threatened to stop using Nielsen due to its belief that the measurement firm hasn’t “sufficiently [addressed] ongoing changes to the industry.”
Nielsen’s methods of measuring television viewership may have worked a couple of generations ago when the way Americans consumed their shows was more straightforward, but they are not working now, at a time when more Americans than ever before are using DVR boxes, streaming services, and other alternative methods of consumption. For years, industry observers have warned the company about the necessity to adjust along with their audiences, but its problems continue. This is likely because it knows that its status as the only TV audience measurer recognized by the Media Ratings Council affords it the opportunity to remain complacent and behind in the times.
It is never good when decision-makers effectively allow one entity to call all the shots in a given industry. That is true in healthcare, that is true in transportation, and it is true in the ratings industry, too. Monopolistic strangleholds almost always lead to price increases, declines in consumer choice, and other adverse outcomes for users. In the past, these monopolies have led to everything from heated commercials on TV to protests and demonstrations on city blocks. And if Nielsen’s marketplace control soon leads to problems for hit shows like “Pawn Stars” or “Equalizer,” you can bet that the American people’s pitchforks will soon come out in some way, shape, or form once again.
The Media Ratings Council is aware of the significant problems that Nielsen is causing to the public’s viewing experiences, which is why it is suspending its accreditation on September 20th — the first day of the 2021-2022 TV season. Now, the council should explore finding ways to promote, reward, and recognize Nielsen’s competitors that continue to provide time-tested accurate readings for the industry. Only then will Americans be able to count their favorite TV shows as safe and secure for the years to come.