Nielsen-Rentrak TV research battle heats up amid ratings flub

The battle for TV ratings supremacy between long-dominant Nielsen and insurgent Rentrak has heated to a boil, with the incumbent taking shots at its fast-emerging rival as Nielsen handled an embarrassing, poorly timed PR crisis brought on by a software glitch.

Steve Hasker, global president of Nielsen, held a press conference Friday to explain a glitch that had made it necessary for the research company to recalculate the entire fall's worth of C3 ratings for the major networks.

Speaking one day after Rentrak had announced a $98 million deal with WPP to buy the advertising conglomerate's Kantar Media TV measurement assets, Hasker seemed more interested in attacking his company's rival than saving its reputation.

Rentrak never lets "the facts get in the way of a good press release," Hasker told reporters from outlets including the New York Post.

"They've been asked to stop using the phrase 'census-like data,' " Hasker added. "They have no demographic information and they can't measure digital or tablets."

Hasker also accused Rentrak of not being transparent about its methodology, which is based on tabulating viewer data via cable set-top boxes.

Responding to the Post, Rentrak CEO Bill Livek said there is room for multiple research companies within the television business. "There's Experian and Equifax, Moody's and S&P, Coke and Pepsi," he said. "They're building samples, we're building big data."

For its part, Nielsen's software glitch didn't affect cable or local ratings, just those that measure commercial viewing three days after initial airing for broadcasters (so-called "C3" ratings). And the error wasn't huge--less than half a ratings point in the most exaggerated circumstance.

But it is nonetheless embarrassing for Nielsen, as it tries to prove to the TV business that it should maintain its stranglehold on the audience research business as viewership fragments across devices.

"It is not an inconsequential" error," said David Poltrack, CBS' chief research officer, who first identified the glitch.

For more:
- read this Wall Street Journal story (sub. req.)
- read this New York Post story

Related links:
Rentrak buys WPP's measurement assets for $98M, now challenging Nielsen
CBS, Rentrak track viewing habits of car buyers
Rentrak to track product placements with iTVX acquisition
Nielsen ties set-top viewing, household spending in new 'Volumetric' ratings reports
Nielsen to add live mobile video viewing to ratings in 2014; launches TOPTEN app for consumers