Amazon’s ‘Thursday Night Football’ Nielsen Ratings Are Under Fire

Nielsen and an industry trade group are at odds over the former’s plan to fold in Amazon viewer data to ratings for the coming season of Thursday Night Football.

The ratings service is planning to incorporate some first-party data from Amazon into its national panel ratings for the 2023 season. Last year, Amazon and Nielsen signed a first-of-its-kind deal for Nielsen to provide ratings for TNF games, putting the streaming telecasts on equal footing with NFL games on broadcast and cable. Amazon also put out its own numbers, however, which were frequently a good bit higher than the Nielsen ratings.

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Earlier this year, Nielsen invited sports broadcasters join a working group about integrating first-party streaming data into national averages for live sports. Thursday Night Football is set to be the first to include both sets of data in a single number; Nielsen has submitted its plan to the Media Rating Council, a regulatory body that accredits media measurement providers. (The MRC suspended Nielsen’s national TV accreditation in 2021 over issues with its sample during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic but reinstated it in April.)

The plan, however, has come under fire from the Video Advertising Bureau, a trade group whose members include several other NFL broadcasters. The VAB, a frequent Nielsen critic, sent a letter to the ratings provider Tuesday asking Nielsen not to go ahead with the plan to incorporate Amazon’s data with its own.

“We see Nielsen’s articulated NFL plans for Amazon…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),” reads the letter, signed by VAB president and CEO Sean Cunningham.

The VAB also shared some statistics casting doubt on Amazon’s data, including that co-viewing of Thursday Night Football (i.e., multiple people watching the same screen) was 28 percent higher than other national sports telecasts and that both its co-viewing and out of home averages posted much larger gains than NFL broadcasts as a whole.

In a response Wednesday, Nielsen noted that “clients other than Amazon did not immediately decide to take action” and that it hopes other NFL broadcasters (CBS, ESPN, Fox and NBC) will do so soon. The letter, signed by Karthik Rao, CEO audience measurement at Nielsen, also clarified what it called “data misconceptions” in the VAB’s missive.

Regarding the 28 percent gap in co-viewing, Nielsen said it looked at only NFL broadcasts, not all sports, in making its comparison. Over four weeks in December 2022, the average number of people in a household watching a Thursday Night Football game was only about 3 percent higher than those of all other NFL contests. And while Nielsen didn’t dispute the VAB’s claims of double-digit percentage gains for co-viewing among a subset of households, it did note that in raw numbers, they amounted to no more than “one fifth of a person.”

“Innovation, in partnership with our clients and the industry, is how we will continue to modernize and evolve media measurement for the future. Nielsen’s overall philosophy is — and has always been — to use the best available data, including our panel data, for measurement,” Nielsen’s letter reads. “While a standardized, respondent level solution remains our ultimate goal, unlike linear TV, there is no single source for this data across streaming platforms. To meet the demands of the industry in an increasingly streaming-first world, we are leveraging first-party data as it is made available to us by publishers to improve our measurement for our clients and the industry at large.”

CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus also expressed his doubts about the Nielsen-Amazon partnership in a call with reporters Tuesday: “Anything that is not impartial and unbiased is unacceptable to us,” he said. “I must say that we think it’s extremely odd and unfortunate that different rules are suddenly applying to one platform.”

The NFL, for its part, isn’t choosing sides. “I think what you’re seeing now is Nielsen’s effort to try to be the best measurement metric that they can be. And we’re certainly supportive of that, all that innovation, and we’ll continue to lean into that,” Brian Rolapp, chief business and media officer for the league, said in a Wednesday conference call. “I’m not smart enough to know or all the nuances of how all the different stats and how it all works, but we’re all for any innovation for all of our partners to measure these games accurately.… Nielsen has a hard job to be the metric of record for this marketplace. And, you know, and it’s made harder by the fact that linear television has changed so much and digital is now on the rise. We’re for everybody figuring out the best measurement — that’s what we should all be striving for.”

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