Gerry Conway on CBS vs. Nielsen

CBS at “Contractual Impasse” with Ratings Provider
by Gerry Conway

This could be the beginning of the end for the decades-long Nielsen ratings scam.

As the main, if not only, source of a supposedly objective measurement of audience views, Nielsen has been the foundation of the broadcast entertainment business financial plan since the days of radio.

As an advertiser-financed medium, broadcast entertainment required a mutually agreed-upon method of measuring audience attention in order to value the price of advertising. Nielsen, as the longest serving provider of “audience measurement” provided that mutually-agreed upon method.

But here’s the dirty secret no one in the business was ever willing to admit, because it would have resulted in chaos: the Nielsen ratings have always been a kind of fiction.

Until the last few decades Nielsen ratings were the result of self-reporting by selected “sample” households– an honor system that on its face was hopelessly compromised.

When Nielsen finally switched to a more “objective” system of measurement that eliminated some aspects of self-reporting, the broadcast industry was stunned by the apparent shifts in popularity of some shows– resulting in a massive shift in network programming during the Eighties and Nineties.

But even that supposedly more “objective” system was hopelessly flawed, relying as it did on sample households and until the 2000s, ignoring the impact of DVRs.

Even now the Nielsen ratings are at best a rough guess of audience engagement– and CBS is rightfully calling into question the value of the Nielsen system at a time when streaming services can provide minute-to-minute details of absolute views tied to specific demographics and even individuals.

CBS is one of the most sophisticated analysts of audience engagement in the broadcast business. With its CBS Access streaming service it has more information about its audience than Nielsen– and it’s smart to use that data to demand more adequate performance from Nielsen in its traditional role as an “objective” provider of audience engagement.

And it’s about time.


Gerry Conway is one of the Kings of TV and film and comic book writing and also one of our Beloved Leader Larry Brody’s longest-lasting and closest friends. Everybody who comes to TVWriter™ should be reading his insightful blog, where this article first appeared. Learn more about Gerry HERE.

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