Amazon Is Poised to Beat TV Networks at Measurement Game With Nielsen Partnership

Here’s an act of counting that isn’t going to be as easy as 1-2-3.

Representatives of 80 different parties will at some point on Wednesday hear the latest about technology that will help tabulate the number of people who watch a streaming presentation of “Thursday Night Football.” Such a task is typically left to Nielsen. But Amazon Prime Video, which streams the NFL showcase each week during the season, wants to add its own audience measures into the mix. And the Media Rating Council, an independent body backed by the media and advertising industries that examines companies that provide audience-measurement service, is considering the ramifications of doing so.

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In the past, such a prospect might seem abhorrent (it might seem so to some parties in the present as well). Why, after all, would Nielsen, an independent arbiter of video viewership, incorporate data from a company that stands to generate more revenue from advertisers if the size of its audience is judged to be larger?

Amazon and Nielsen have been discussing such an alliance since earlier this year, after the two sides clashed over two different accountings of streams of last season’s “Thursday Night Football.” Nielsen’s tabulation, long based primarily on the reactions it gleans from viewer panels, discovered an audience that was 18% smaller than the one Amazon found using its understanding of how many devices were streaming its Thursday night feed. The two have worked together to reconcile their work.

The MRC has already examined Amazon’s efforts separately, says George Ivie, the MRC’s CEO, and will probe an audit of Nielsen’s use of the streamer’s results. “I don’t work for Nielsen,” he says. “We are fiercely independent.” Still, he’s aware of TV-industry trepidation. “Some large publisher organizations say they’d rather it not move forward,” Ivie notes.

The process has indeed alarmed the networks, with representatives of Fox taking to social media to protest. On Tuesday, Sean McManus, the chairman of CBS Sports, called Nielsen’s work with Amazon “unfortunate,” noting that “a fair and accurate audience measurement across all systems is absolutely vital,” but said “anything that is not impartial and unbiased is unacceptable to us.”

The VAB, a trade group that represents U.S. TV networks, on Tuesday sent a letter to Nielsen demanding that the company halt its work with Amazon. “We see Nielsen’s articulated NFL plans for Amazon (intended to be activated by the Sept. 7th opening of the ‘23/‘24 NFL season) as Nielsen clearly forcing changes into a highly valued, highly visible, ultra-competitive multi-billion-dollar sports content arena; changes that will greatly benefit one Nielsen client (Amazon) while negatively impacting multiple Nielsen clients (all remainder NFL programmers, distributors & ad sellers,” wrote Sean Cunningham, the group’s CEO.

Yet the networks have been testing similar efforts. Their disparagement of the Nielsen-Amazon tie-up comes after they have spent the past few years trying to get advertisers and Nielsen to accept new audience measures based on data they supply. Paramount Global, NBCUniversal and Warner Bros. Discovery have been particularly vocal about the need to find other measurement technologies as Nielsen moves less quickly than they feel is appropriate to try and count audiences who stream their favorites, rather than watching them at a regular day and time each week via a linear TV network.

These companies have enlisted measurement-tech firms including Comscore, Videoamp and iSpot to provide new data streams that offer a look at audience size and behavior. The trouble? Few of these efforts have been validated by the MRC, though Ivie notes some of Comscore’s and ISpot’s work has been examined and is in the process of being audited.

“While Amazon is the first integration partner, we have been in active discussions with many of our clients for years about incorporating their first party data for more accurate measurement of audiences across all live program types,” Nielsen said in a letter Wednesday to the VAB’s Cunningham. “We look forward to bringing more such integrations into our measurement in the near future. We have been engaging clients, including VAB members, on the concept of integrating first party data for live streaming since as early as 2021.”

The relationship between Nielsen and the networks, long fraught, has been souring for the past few years. Nielsen’s flaws have been on full display since the coronavirus pandemic, when the networks proved the measurement company’s inability to keep track of certain panelists and their technology during the contagion resulted in significant undercounting of viewership that was likely watching more video, not less, as consumers were forced to hunker down in their homes. Earlier this year, Nielsen acknowledged undercounting the audience for Fox’s broadcast of Super Bowl LVII — which, after a new examination of data, was shown to have drawn a record crowd to the big gridiron classic.

Meanwhile, Amazon and Nielsen have grown closer. In August of last year, the two struck a three-year pact that calls for Nielsen to measure “Thursday Night Football” and determine how its viewership stacks up against traditional TV. The two companies said at the time that the agreement marked the first time a streaming service had one of its live programs measured as part of national TV audiences. In addition to the game itself, Nielsen’s remit called for it to examine pregame and postgame programming; activity around the shows on Amazon’s Twitch gaming outlet; and activity on local TV stations in the teams’ home markets, which Amazon controls. So-called “out of home” viewership — people who watch content in bars, offices, hotels and the like — is also to be measured

The NFL is in favor of the use of Amazon’s data. Like the networks, the league believes Nielsen’s technology has become outmoded over time as more viewers take to new devices and technologies to watch their favorite pieces of entertainment. “The big debate around all of this is how do you continue to enhance their traditional panel-based approach,” says Paul Ballew, the NFL’s chief data and analytics officer. “We have advocated for the usage of first-party data, not just from Amazon but from everybody” who has rights to show football games. “This is a good first step.”.

At some point, says Ballew, more media companies are likely to find Nielsen making use of their first-party data. “Our point of view is that this is a multi-faceted journey,” he says. “And we want to get on with it.”

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