How TV networks’ battle with YouTube is fueling measurement debate

Dave Morgan, CEO and founder of TV and video analytics company Simulmedia, said he’s heard from multiple people in the industry that network concerns about Nielsen providing measurement, that would let YouTube and other digital players undercut their pricing, prompted much of the pushback against the measurement giant and embrace of its rivals in recent years. 

Morgan acknowledged that Nielsen brought on its own problems with methodology errors that led to its Media Rating Council accreditation being suspended for 19 months. But the battle of the incumbents against the newcomers is at the core of the controversy, he said.

“This isn’t new in the history of media,” Morgan said, pointing to parallels going back to the 20th century, when daily newspapers tried to exclude weekly newspapers from Audit Bureau of Circulations coverage, or when broadcast networks pushed back against cable networks getting similar ratings coverage.

Today, YouTube poses the most direct threat to TV network pricing among digital platforms, because it operates increasingly on the big screen as the networks do. Meta and TikTok offer plenty of ad-supported user-generated videos, but don’t have the same significant presence on TV screens that YouTube does thanks to its CTV app.

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Are impressions equal?

Network executives see the idea, of measuring all video content with a single impression metric that counts reach without accounting for production quality, as a race to the bottom.

“Content that companies like ours produce shape society,” said Kelly Abcarian, executive VP of measurement and impact at NBCUniversal during an appearance at the Paramount Measurement Now event last month. “If we leave the quality of content behind, I really do fear for the society that we’re also starting to leave behind if none of us can afford to invest and produce great content, because it’s a race to the bottom on price, and it’s not even a fair valuation of price.”

Some measurement systems “are focused exclusively on reach as some kind of common aggregator with an impression being an impression being an impression,” Abcarian said, “whether it’s a critically acclaimed drama, a sporting event, or a UGC cat viral video.”

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TV networks are spending $10 billion or $20 billion a year on content, said Paramount Advertising President John Halley. “There’s a reason for that. These things work. It relates to engagement.”

NBCU has put forward a Content Quality Index that aims to separate the “cat videos” from the premium network fare. It could become the basis for the JIC’s currency quality modifier, given that no other JIC member has offered an alternative. In an NBCU measurement event in February, Abcarian said the CQI gave her network’s content a 70 rating, compared to 50 for user-generated content.