BBM/ Nielsen battle heats up
But advertisers need to know how many people watch ads, not shows

The biggest ratings war going on in the broadcast industry is not among rival television shows, but between BBM Bureau of Measurement and Nielsen Media Research -- the two companies charged with measuring viewing audiences.

The battle has profound implications for the ad industry, since data supplied by these firms, sets the tone for television commercial pricing -- the bread and butter of most large advertising campaigns. Complicating the situation are the different measurement systems used by the competitors, which can yield widely varying results.

For example last year BBM numbers showed a decrease in viewing hours at Télévision Quatre Saisons, and competitor Nielsen showed an increase. The difference according to Jean Durocher, the station's vice-president (sales and marketing) accounts for more than a million dollars in lost advertising revenue. Last December TQS switched suppliers, and is now using Nielsen data.

At the heart of TQS's problem with BBM, was its method of collecting data, which relies on television viewers to fill in log books noting the programs watched by persons in a particular household. The problem with logbooks, is that people tend to "forget" that they watch certain types of programming.

A good example is the TQS soft porn show Bleu Nuit, which airs most weekday nights and in movie format late Saturday evenings. According to BBM's fall 1999 numbers, only 59,000 francophone males over the age of 18 watched the show.

But using competitor Nielsen's People Meters ­ which are devices attached the a television set that monitor when the set is on -- the average audience more than trebled to 228,000. In other words, about 169,000 people watched the show and never recorded it in their logbooks.

Canada is one of the few countries in the world with two competing measuring companies. Although the differing numbers produced can cause headaches for advertisers and broadcasters, there are advantages in having two systems.

The Nielsen People Meter system, although far more expensive than the logbook method on a per household rated basis, is considered more reliable since it records when the television set is on ­ not when viewers say it is on. Since the system is electronic, it provides data much quicker than the logbooks, which are filled out three times per year.

The People Meter's main weakness, is that meter costs are so high, it is uneconomical to install enough to generate a sufficient statistical sample to measure individual local markets.

"The Nielsen data is generally better for measuring national viewing audiences," said Gilbert Paquette, vice-president at Carat Expert, a company that advises advertisers how to spend their media budgets. "But BBM's logbook system, which tracks more viewers, is considered a more reliable method for measuring local markets such as individual municipalities."

BBM, a non-profit Canadian consortium of broadcasters and advertisers, has long recognized the weakness inherent in its logbook system. Last year the organization announced plans to install a national network of its own brand of meters ­ to be completed in December 2001 -- which would roughly replicate the Nielsen system. BBM would thus be able to offer a full line of measurements ­ logbook data for local markets, and meter data for national devices.

But American-owned Nielsen has some cards up its sleeves as well. Although its service is more expensive, the data generated is compatible with measurements made in U.S. markets ­ giving it more credibility among some segments of the advertising community.

For many advertisers, what may be more important is not which company ultimately prevails, but whether either of them will provide data that advertisers require. The vast majority of both measurement companies revenues ­ in excess of 80 per cent ­ comes from broadcasters. Data collected thus tends to reflect their requirements, such as who is watching what programming.

Advertisers needs are subtly different ­ they need to know not who is watching a given program, but who is watching the commercials. "We need a strong and concerted effort from broadcasters to supply us with data showing why we should spend money on them," said Ron Lund, president of the Association of Canadian Advertising. "We also need more data on how ad clutter (excessive commercials packed into a show) affects ad viewing."

Lund would like to see a measurement model available similar to that in some European countries where the number of viewers seeing a commercial is measured.

But don't expect that here in Canada any time soon. Broadcasters have an interest in focusing more on program viewership. Although there are no hard statistics available, it is suspected that due to channels changing and trips to the fridge, more than 30 per cent of all commercials are never seen.

But in spite of the fact that many advertisers have expressed the desire to have one standard measurement data available in Canada -- the heated up BBM/ Neilsen battle means that this is unlikely to occur any time soon.

Peter Diekmeyer can be reached at peter@peterdiekmeyer.com

 

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