Media Measurement Future of TV Upfronts

Under pressure from VAB, Nielsen delays rollout of big data currency before upfronts


By Kendra Barnett, Associate Editor

April 27, 2023 | 9 min read

The VAB’s chief executive anticipates that the change will significantly slow Nielsen’s plans to launch its cross-channel currency Nielsen One, although Nielsen disputes this assessment.

Nielsen logo

Nielsen is pushing pause on the official rollout of its big data-based measurement solution / Adobe Stock

TV ratings and measurement giant Nielsen is backtracking on its plans to roll out a media measurement currency that brings together big data and panel data ahead of the TV upfronts, the springtime events in which top television networks sell the majority of their ad inventory.

In an email to clients reviewed by The Drum, Nielsen said that its legacy panels-based measurement system would be the standard currency at the upfront – rather than its new big data-driven currency – with an exception for the Spanish language market.

“Our stance has always been that buyers and sellers determine how to transact. We also believe that a currency should be fully audited and ultimately accredited. With these two beliefs as our guideposts – and after much consultation and deliberation – we have decided to maintain Nielsen’s panel-only National TV audience measurement service as the currency of record for the 2023-2024 TV season.”

In a separate statement to The Drum, the company said that “trust and transparency throughout the buying and selling process is paramount,” and added that it plans to “move ahead with the process to seek full accreditation for a currency informed by big data.” Although not yet accredited by the Media Rating Council (MRC) – an industry self-regulatory body and leader in media standardization – the new big data-based currency will still be available to transact on for those who wish to use it at this year’s upfronts.

The development throws a wrench in the works for many TV executives who were banking on the currency for this year’s upfronts and expected it to have gained MRC and wider industry endorsement at this point.

Nielsen’s announcement was made in response to calls from the Video Advertising Bureau (VAB) to delay the rollout of the product, citing concerns about its accuracy and consistency.

Part of the reasons behind these issues, according to the VAB’s chief executive officer Sean Cunningham, has been Nielsen’s efforts to fast-track the currency. “This has been one of the most ‘ready-fire-aim’ executions, in terms of just an incoherent imposition on a marketplace, by the way that Nielsen was forcing this new product on the marketplace with only four or five months of impact data,” he tells The Drum. “They were essentially not going to allow the legacy panel product for use as currency and the upcoming upfront [but now they are being forced to].”

In a March 23 letter from Cunningham – on behalf of the VAB board of directors and the VAB’s Measurement Innovation Task Force, which includes 32 heads of research and audience data from 18 of the largest multiscreen TV companies – to Karthik Rao, the chief executive officer of Nielsen Audience Measurement, Cunningham outlined what the VAB sees as a set of key issues with the big data product that make it unsuited for adoption among advertisers and publishers at this time.

The task force found, according to Cunningham’s letter obtained by The Drum, widespread issues with reporting consistency across different demographics.

Cunningham wrote: “The Enhanced Big Data product … would appear to be an improvement (thus far) versus the current national-panel-only product in very broad strokes, showing generally better audience counts among: the youngest demographics … also in Spanish language data, and milder improvements among the broadest captures of some age/sex demographics.”

Despite the initially impression, Cunningham went on to say, “When we took the natural closer look into the kind of details that this data would be used to estimate, forecast, plan, sell and steward – we quickly found significant breakdowns that would make all of those tasks very difficult, including breakdowns in: lack of month-to-month stability; lack of consistency by gender; lack of consistency by daypart; all of the above also in major properties such as NFL & College football, etc.”

Pushing pause on the new big data system is likely to exacerbate Nielsen’s existing trust issues. Many top networks and streaming companies have begun investing in innovative measurement methodologies and alternative providers in the wake of a dramatic series of events that saw Nielsen stripped of its national accreditation by the MRC in 2021 after systematic inaccuracies were found in its viewership data during the pandemic. ViacomCBS has moved away from Nielsen, while NBCUniversal has teamed up with iSpotTV and Paramount has established a relationship with VideoAmp.

Since 2021, Nielsen has invested significant dollars and energy in winning back its MRC accreditation – it overhauled its commercial ratings system and underwent a marjor rebrand. And the effort paid off: last week, Nielsen won back its MRC accreditation for national TV ratings. It is the only player in the industry with such a stamp of approval on its national rating program.

Still, Nielsen’s efforts to push out its big data-informed currency, in Cunningham’s eyes, have been rash. “So far what puts this upfront in a class of one is that you have the dominant currency provider trying to impose their priorities for their product pipeline and their timing atop their buy-sell marketplace customers,” he says. “Essentially, [Nielsen is] putting the needs of their buy-sell marketplace customers – in terms of market timing, readiness, preparation and the customary amount of time to analyze and be ready – secondary to their higher priority, which is, keeping their product pipeline timing intact.”

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Nielsen, Cunningham suggests, has been guns-blazing on its big data currency – despite its reported consistency issues – because it’s on a mission to roll out Nielsen One, its long-awaited universal cross-platform currency. The product was originally slated to debut in September of 2024. Now, Cunningham says, the entire product timeline will be delayed.

“This is essentially a white flag … a surrender flag saying, ‘Okay, this product is not ready – with the exception of Spanish language – and everything gets moved back a year.” He anticipates that the big-data-plus-panel-data product won’t be available to transact on until late next year. As for Nielsen One, he says that “introduction moves back a year, to September of 2025.”

Nielsen denies this assessment – in a statement shared with The Drum, the company said that “rollout plans for Nielsen One will not be impacted” by today’s announcement.

Whether TV’s top players will play it safe and stick with Nielsen’s legacy panel data or take a risk with the new big data-based currency in this year’s upfronts remains to be seen.

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