Who’s watching the watchers?

A lawsuit in India alleges that the Nielsen rating system is inherently flawed

Who's watching the watchers?

Rajesh Kumar Singh/AP

Many people have accused Nielsen ratings of being inaccurate—usually people whose shows have low ratings. But last month, a TV network in India decided to do more than just complain. New Delhi Television Limited (NDTV) filed a lawsuit against a Nielsen ratings agency, alleging it put out false and manipulated ratings. People have distrusted the Nielsen ratings for as long as they’ve existed. “Their ratings function as a black box,” says Jason Mittell, associate professor of American studies and film and media culture at Middlebury College in Vermont and author of the new book Complex TV. “Nobody is exactly sure of their methodology or sampling rationale.” Now someone is finally trying to make them explain it in court.

The NDTV suit, filed in New York where Nielsen has its headquarters, alleges that a company it co-owns—Television Audience Measurement—has ignored “evidence of corruption and manipulation” and accepted bribes in exchange for better ratings. It also alleges that Nielsen boxes were “installed at the residences of government officials where tampering of the data also takes place.” Both NDTV and Nielsen have said they cannot comment on a case before the court. But the more powerful allegation may be one that has nothing to do with corruption: NDTV argues that based on such a small sample size—only a little more than 8,000 homes in a country with 129 million TV households—the numbers are meaningless. That argument has struck a chord with online TV fans, furious at the low ratings given to their favourite shows. Dustin Rowles, on the website Uproxx, pointed to the NDTV lawsuit as an indication that cult favourites may be rated low because of Nielsen tampering. “Why are Nielsen ratings often such a poor reflection of what’s popular in the real world?” he wrote. “How deep does this run? And can we get Jason Bourne on the case?”

NDTV may also gain sympathy with its claim that Nielsen has been “abusing its dominant position in the Indian market,” since other countries have grumbled about its monopolistic nature. Two years ago, the Independent reported on a backlash in Ireland against Nielsen’s reports on ad spending. “It’s been an absolute disaster,” media buyer David Hayes told the paper. “Online figures aren’t being collected at all.” Resentment is even fiercer in the U.S., where advertisers rely religiously on Nielsen ratings. “TV ratings are the lifeblood of the industry,” explains reporter Eriq Gardner, who broke the NDTV lawsuit story for the Hollywood Reporter. “The suggestion of flaws in the methodology, or worse as this dispute alleges, will set off heated fights.”

Some television people have already started pushing back, gingerly, against the dominance of Nielsen. Last month, Mark Pedowitz, the president of the low-rated CW network, appeared on a Television Critics’ Association panel and argued that Nielsen ratings don’t reflect his network’s young, tech-savvy audience. “We can measure who’s watching us on digital,” he said, “but it does not count with the Nielsen ratings.”

Still, Nielsen may be in no real danger. Robert Seidman of the ratings analysis site TV By the Numbers wrote that a more accurate or transparent system would be “multiple orders of magnitude more expensive to maintain and manage.” Mittell adds that while “people in the industry are more and more skeptical that Nielsen is sufficiently accurate to rely on,” the company hangs on because “there’s not another neutral party offering better measurement.” For now, the Nielsen system is a comfortable, relatively cheap one for networks and advertisers alike, whether or not the numbers make sense.

That may be why networks around the world haven’t followed NDTV’s lead in suing or even criticizing Nielsen. Pedowitz made sure to add that although he doesn’t believe his network’s ratings are accurate, he thinks “Nielsen is trying to do the best they can; we are all looking for an accurate measurement.” Networks may need to hold out hope that the NDTV lawsuit doesn’t go anywhere; if Nielsen were to fall apart, they would have to pay a lot more.

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