How This Monopoly Is Destroying Popular Television

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You’ve probably noticed that broadcasters have axed a lot of TV shows this year. From short-lived comedies like ABC’s “Call Your Mother” to long-running hits like PBS’s “Arthur,” the landscape of television is rapidly changing.

All told, nearly 60 shows have received cancellation announcements this year, and it’s left many viewers wondering what’s behind this mass exodus of content.

Sure, the pains of the pandemic have something to do with it, and some of these shows naturally ran their course. That said, a lot of the blame may rest on something else: egregious mistakes made by TV raters.

Raters’ viewership numbers determine the value advertisers are willing to spend on ads during your favorite shows. That ad revenue determines what shows networks keep on and what shows they can.

The problem: only one company has had full accreditation from the Media Ratings Council, the government-funded organization that ensures valid, reliable, and effective TV viewership numbers, to measure shows’ popularity. That company is Nielsen, which has had accreditation since the 1960s.

Like most monopolies, Nielsen has gotten a bit too comfortable in the absence of competition. The company still leans heavily on the outdated set-top boxes it installs in select families’ houses and largely ignores streaming and the other modern ways that viewers consume their favorite programs in the 21st century.

The result? Nielsen erroneously projected that TV viewership decreased during the pandemic when we were all clearly binging it more than ever. The embarrassing mistake caused the broadcasting industry to lose millions if not billions of dollars, which may have incited the demise of many of our favorite shows both this year and last.

Nielsen has since scrambled to save face with a company revamp. Backed by a new logo, the company has promised to innovate and better track the changing media landscape. However, we’ve seen this movie before, and it’s always ended the same way: with broken promises and more disappointment.

In 2014, Nielsen assured the industry that it would make changes after fudging its numbers for nearly six months. While that mistake wasn’t as monumental as the one in 2020, it still prompted calls for a breakup of the Nielsen monopoly. Nothing substantial appears to have changed from 2014 to today.

Just seven years earlier, Nielsen had to defend its methods against the emergence of DVR. Yet again, the company appeared to fight change until it got backed into a corner.

Why should we expect Nielsen to change anything today when it seems as if the company has failed to keep its word throughout the last decade?

Thankfully, the industry already appears to know the answer to this question — we can’t — and it is finally standing up to Nielsen’s doublespeak and industry damage.

Recently, NBC announced intent to solicit proposals to replace the monopoly. The MRC also suspended Nielsen’s accreditation, which may allow newer companies like Comscore and others to compete even more heavily with the company in the near future.

It’s too early to tell what will happen, but with any luck, our favorite shows might soon be spared from being on the receiving end of more financial threats and pains.

Consumer choice is supposed to determine who succeeds and fails in the marketplace — not the whims of data dictators. Here’s hoping the entertainment industry does what’s needed to ensure that remains true in the television industry. The fate of our favorite shows is hanging in the balance.

Copyright 2021 Matt Mackowiak, distributed by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate.

Mackowiak is president of Potomac Strategy Group, LLC, an Austin and Washington, DC-based boutique public relations firm. He is a former senior communications aide to two U.S. senators and a governor, and worked in the Bush administration at the Department of Homeland Security.