Who replaces Nielsen? Maybe Nobody

And maybe that's what the networks really want as TV becomes more like digital

Quick question - how many monthly unique users does Pinterest have? What about concurrent Twitch streamers in the US? Or how many viewers does Facebook reach each afternoon via video on its feed vs. Facebook Watch specifically?

Chances are, you don’t know the answer to these questions, nor do you likely care. And if you do, the party supplying such answers isn’t Nielsen or comScore or whoever.

Pinterest tells you how big Pinterest is. Twitch tells you how big your latest campaign is. Facebook announces every quarter how many DAUs it has, and we all go wow.

Imagine if NBC simply told you how big the audience is for Chicago Fire or Chicago Sanitation is? TV buyers wouldn’t be cool with that. But right now, NBCU is the one telling you how big Peacock is. Even as the media giant publically looks for Nielsen alterative, in the meantime they are asking you to take their word for it (as is Fox for Tubi and ViacomCBS for Paramount+ and so on).

This is the deal for now - and maybe forever.

Advertisers and networks are up in arms these days over Nielsen’s failures, and the shocking fact that the Media Rating Council, an organization Nielsen pays big bucks to in order to audit its practice, just gave Nielsen an F. That’s like your kid failing at Kumon.

In Wall Street Journal reporter Alex Bruell’s excellent piece the other day on this mess, many asked the question, did the streaming boom pass Nielsen by?

Yes, probably. But to me the bigger trend is that TV has decided to ape digital media. The more you become a Walled Garden, the more you dictate the terms - and third-party audience measurement becomes less feasible, maybe less relevant.

A few years ago I wrote a bunch of stories about how, even as ad verification and brand safety had become so crucial for brands, Facebook and Google wouldn’t let marketers actually put tracking codes on their apps. No matter what. Yes, they’d pass back data through a complicated procedure, but they weren’t going to let anybody ride on their apps and pull any data out directly, as that might not be good or safe for users (loads of ironies here).

TV is quickly becoming an App First World. I’m not saying that the TV networks aren’t going to let a Nielsen or comScore in to see everything that happens on their apps, but it feels like we’re headed to a much more restricted place. TV ratings - with all their flaws - were the ultimate naked, very public arbiter. A zillion people watched Home Improvement last night. The Oscars were down, Or way up. It was all there to see, right off the bat, thanks to Nielsen.

So even if Nielsen, or comScore, or Samba, or Innovid or 605, or insert startup here actually create some kind of super tracking tag, are media companies going to let them plug it into each version of their apps on the back end.

Let’s start with NBCU. All they’d have to do is make sure that Super Tag is baked into the Peacock app for Roku, and Amazon Fire and PlayStation and Vizio and Xbox and Samsung and LG and Chromecast and Apple TV and maybe a dozen others. Then do the same thing for the Apps for mobile devices, and then do all this for USA and SyFy and Oxygen and the Olympics app.

Then synch all this together with linear TV and VOD -and there you have the full audience for the Punky Brewster reboot.

Only, who pays for all this integration? Does it all work seamlessly?

Bigger question - does Roku - which is all about building a data/ID/ad tech walled garden - let this Super Tracker in? Does Amazon, with all of its data secrets?

What about Disney, which in conjunction with Hulu, wants to build its own cross-platform identity system - Disney Select? Do they want a third-party metrics company messing with this? Or are they - like Facebook, Google and others, finding they like control - and controlling their own narrative?

I could be all wrong about this. Surely there is a tech innovation coming that I don’t fully grasp or see coming. However, I also ask - given where the industry has long been headed (actually, it’s already there outside of TV) - tracking the impact ads have on real-world outcomes, for how long is measuring the audiences of shows and networks really going to matter?

You might say, well, what about the advertisers? Surely they aren’t going to stand for all this self-reported ambiguity, right? Well, there doesn’t seem to have been much of a protest this year:

NBCUniversal Wraps Record Upfront

US TV advertisers will spend close to $20 billion in this year's upfronts

Broadcast TV Enjoys ‘Upfront’ Lift, but Long-Term Gains Uncertain

Not as uncertain as Nielsen’s future relevance.