Our previous Audience Insights article focused on Nielsen’s plans to integrate broadband-only (BBO) homes into its local TV measurement services throughout 2021. While the change was implemented for January measurement in some markets, Nielsen has since decided to delay the BBO integration for remaining TV markets until at least fourth quarter. To better understand the reasoning and potential implications, we sat down for another conversation with David Gustafson, Cox Media’s Director of Linear & Audience Research.

CM: When we last talked, several Cox Media markets were preparing for Nielsen to launch BBO in April. What happened?  

DG: To use a time-honored television reference, that’s really the “$64,000 Question.” The integration of broadband-only, or BBO, homes into Nielsen’s local TV measurement has been a bit of a moving target over the past couple of years – but all signs pointed to the transition happening this April for more than 50 of the largest markets in the country. Consider that, back in September, Nielsen released DMA population estimates for all local markets that reflected the expanded BBO-inclusive definition of the local TV universe. And in January of this year, Nielsen moved forward with adding BBO into the measurement mix for the former diary markets, seemingly paving the way for the scheduled expansion into metered markets in second quarter. On March 31, though, Nielsen announced a delay until at least October in those markets, citing a need to complete maintenance work within a significant number of their panel homes…work that previously had been delayed due to the pandemic.

CM: Wow, that’s an abrupt change. You mentioned Nielsen’s panel homes. Is that related to the VAB’s recent assertions of TV viewing being underreported during first quarter?    

DG: Essentially, yes. While the VAB focused their press release on Nielsen’s national TV measurement service, most of the homes contributing to Total U.S. audience estimates also contribute to Nielsen’s local TV measurement service in the metered markets. In their analysis, the VAB compared the average number of in-tab metered homes for February 2021 vs. February 2020. “In-tab” refers to a Nielsen panel home that collects and reports back valid data that can be used to estimate viewing levels. The VAB findings showed a year-over-year decline of approximately 20% for in-tab homes, meaning only four reporting panel homes this year for every five last year. That’s the TV measurement equivalent of a basketball team having to play an entire game down a player. The remaining four players may be able to keep the game competitive for a quarter or even a half, but eventually the shorthanded team will get worn down trying to cover the entire court.        

CM: That definitely sounds challenging. Are we seeing that have an impact on impressions and ratings in Cox Media markets?    

DG: With all the variables that go into measuring television, every market situation can be different. That said, consensus across many of our markets is that Nielsen’s metered panels are capturing significantly less viewership so far in 2021 than during the same period last year.    

CM: You hosted a webinar last year highlighting elevated TV viewership during the early months of the pandemic. Could the audience declines we’re seeing now just be things “getting back to normal”?    

DG: That’s a great place to start, but one of the challenges is that Nielsen’s panels are capturing less viewing even for January and February. By comparison, last year’s audience increases really began in late March after the national emergency was declared – and continued as more and more states issued stay-at-home orders.

CM: Given that, then, what other factors could be at play?    

DG: In addition to what the VAB flagged in terms of fewer Nielsen panel homes returning usable data this year, one potential contributing factor at the local level comes back to market population figures. As I mentioned, Nielsen released BBO-inclusive population estimates for all markets late last year. In the time since, their primary focus in the metered markets has been managing the local panels to those BBO-adjusted populations. With the delay in integrating BBO homes into local measurement, though, metered markets are sticking with the historical local TV universe, which includes cable, satellite, and over-the-air homes. This could lead to challenges with panel homes providing proportional representation. As an example, consider what we’re seeing with the Adults 18-49 demographic when we aggregate across all Cox Media markets. Overall, Nielsen projects that there are 1,075 Adults 18-49 for every 1,000 TV households in that footprint. But when you break apart the components, the numbers are very different. Traditional TV homes under-index with 938 Adults 18-49 per 1,000 homes. Meanwhile, Nielsen’s figures show that homes in the BBO universe are nearly twice as large, with 1,847 Adults 18-49 per 1,000 homes. At this point, it’s unclear why there would be such a disparity.

CM: Interesting analysis. With all the uncertainty, do you have any advice for advertisers?    

DG: Really the same thing I would say to our Cox Media teams – consider as many variables as possible when trying to estimate viewership levels, especially for the remainder of second quarter and into third quarter. Look at as many different data sources as possible. That’s where our team of marketing analysts across the company is uniquely equipped to partner with you and help you understand the nuances of your individual market.

CM: Thank you for your time! We look forward to more audience insights very soon.