Commentary: Distrust in Television Ratings

by Brian Maloney


While they may not agree on nearly anything else, one issue manages to unite Fox News Channel, MSNBC and CNN: an archaic television ratings system that is known to wildly misrepresent viewership.

At a time when cord-cutting has brought about many new ways to consume television news and entertainment, the industry’s primary measurement tool, Nielsen Ratings, seems stuck in another era. Those chosen as “Nielsen families” have complained for years about the cumbersome, almost primitive methods used to track their viewership.

While complaints poured in, the Nielsen Company instead focused on political posturing, including “social responsibility and sustainability”, as well as “diversity, equity and inclusion” programs. None of this addressed the elephant in the room- a company seemingly clinging to the dial-up modem era in a fast-changing world.

Now, thanks to research that demonstrated its failure to accurately track ratings during the COVID era, leading to significant viewership undercounting, a fed-up industry is fighting back. For top-rated programs such as those of Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham on Fox News Channel, this could mean hundreds of thousands of daily viewers not included in the count. That leads to untold millions in ad revenue left on the table.


The Media Rating Council (MRC), a non-profit that manages accreditation for media research in the United States, recently joined in this fight for media accountability by exposing the inaccuracies emanating from woke ratings giant Nielsen. The MRC was created at the behest of Congress in the 1960s.

Nielsen’s TV viewership estimates make the entire entertainment industry hum. They fuel ad-buy decisions, trigger extension and cancellation talks, in addition to other critical decisions made by marketers and TV production crews.

Print headlines — from Vulture’s “Why Nielsen Ratings Are Inaccurate, and Why They’ll Stay That Way” in 2011, to The Wrap’s “NBC Voices ‘Deep Concerns’ Over ‘Bad, Inaccurate and Misleading’ New Nielsen System” in 2016, to Screen Rant’s “CBS May Not Use Nielsen Anymore To Measure TV Ratings” in 2019 — have told the story well and made clear that its problems extend far and wide. The beginning of last year’s pandemic lockdowns — when Nielsen suggested that TV viewership declined despite Americans having nothing to do besides sit around and watch television – was the final nail in the coffin.

Although the monopolist initially played down its shortcomings and rejected calls for an independent audit, it ultimately confessed to errors following wide public backlash, blaming “some of the COVID measures we implemented.” However, the MRC quickly fact-checked that by countering that it “had some deep-rooted, ongoing performance issues…many of which pre-dated the well-documented COVID pandemic-related impacts…”

Nielsen’s operational shortcomings shouldn’t be taken lightly. They can cause permanent damage to the industry and prop up favored shows and news networks over others. Without question, it has more power than any other corporation to tilt the scales of the media playing field.

In this polarized political climate, isn’t the last thing anyone should want Tucker Carlson Tonight getting pushed below The Rachel Maddow Show, or vice versa, because of the incompetence of one fast and loose data monopoly?

The Media Ratings Council appears to think so. It planned a vote to strip Nielsen of its accreditation, only to watch Nielsen head this off by pre-emptively asking for a pause so it can “focus on innovating our core products, continuing to deliver data that the industry can rely on and ultimately creating a better media future for the entire industry.”

It’s too late for that. It has already been given too many warnings and chances — chances that it blew off as it instead injected itself into the political news of the day.

The MRC is meeting again soon. The council has already done a great job of calling out Nielsen for what it is — an outdated business with an out-of-fashion business model. Now, it just needs to follow through on the rhetoric by stripping the company of its accreditation so the media industry can move on, free of new errors and distractions. The fate of the modern-day media equity movement is counting on it.

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Brian Maloney is the co-founder of the Media Equality Project.
Photo “Sean Hannity” by Gage Skidmore. CC BY-SA 3.0. Background Photo “Fox News Wall” by ajay_suresh. CC BY 2.0.











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