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Volume 23 No. 1
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NBCUniversal’s Yaccarino: Nielsen needs to ‘get it right’

n Sept. 14, CNBC’s David Faber asked CBS Chairman and CEO Les Moonves a simple question: Is Nielsen still relevant?

His answer: “Yes. They are still the way we get paid. … Nielsen is not perfect. They are getting better.”

Later that same day, I had the opportunity to interview Linda Yaccarino, NBCUniversal chairman of advertising sales and client partnerships, on stage at our Game Changers conference in New York. I asked her the same question and her answer was much more forceful.

“Part of the reason the ratings are seemingly going down — and they won’t be going back up — is because of the unfortunate inertia and lack of movement by the only one rating system that we have in this country. That’s Nielsen,” she said.

It is not unusual to hear Yaccarino bash Nielsen. She’s been a longtime critic of the ratings service, especially around its efforts to measure non-traditional viewing, which essentially means out-of-home and digital viewing.

Yaccarino believes Nielsen has moved way too slowly. To underscore that point, earlier this year she led an effort to sell $1 billion in ad inventory for NBCUniversal channels by using non-Nielsen guarantees. During our interview, she did not say how those sales efforts were progressing, but she did speak of her frustration that marketers are not embracing a new form of measurement.

“I ask [marketers] all the time — if I’m willing to guarantee a certain business outcome …,” she said, pointing to a measurement that includes television viewing, out-of-home viewing and digital viewing through partnerships with companies such as Snapchat, Apple News, Vox and Buzzfeed.

Linda Yaccarino said Nielsen needs to move faster to allow for changes in media consumption.

Yaccarino’s tough talk does not mean that NBCUniversal has given up on Nielsen. In fact, Yaccarino said she is in “mature talks” to sign up for Nielsen’s out-of-home service that ESPN, Fox and Turner Sports already are using.

“We just want to be sure that they get it right,” she said. “We want to make sure that the co-viewing is accounted for properly. We want to make sure that in every sport that we have, in every business that we have, we’re not just talking about once-a-week football. We’re talking about NBCUniversal. Out-of-home is extremely important to our company, including a brand like CNBC.

During her Game Changers interview, she spoke about NBC’s decision to stop relying on Nielsen data for CNBC because the ratings service did not measure out-of-home viewing. Most people, she said, watch CNBC during the day when they are out of the home and at work.

“Guess what? CNBC’s still on the air, right?” Yaccarino asked facetiously. “We came up with a new metric that actually delivered real KPIs (key performance indicators) for the companies that we do business with.”

As traditional television ratings continue to fall, these types of out-of-home measurements increasingly are important to big media companies. For example, Yaccarino said out-of-home viewing from the Rio Olympics accounted for 30 percent of total viewing, compared to two years earlier in Rio when there was no way to measure out-of-home viewing.

“It’s more and more important to us every day,” she said. “It’s actually table stakes, as we see it. We’re very bullish on including out-of-home in our businesses. We just want to get it right.”

Yaccarino also spoke frankly about digital offerings, which increasingly are attracting the attention of ad buyers. Any problem she has with Nielsen pales in comparison with measurement problems on Facebook and Google, she said.

“While there are challenges in the inability to accelerate measurement of consumer behavior by Nielsen — the only one choice — on the flip side to digital, it’s complete chaos,” she said. “Once you take out the bots, once you take out completed views, once you take out viewability, once you take out the charges for the ad networks that you were buying, your CPM is not your CPM that looked really cheap to your procurement officer on the piece of paper. Your CPM is probably 30 percent higher. This is 30 percent higher for content that isn’t stopping you dead in your tracks. It’s not making you scream at your TV screen to make sure your team gets a touchdown.”

Yaccarino referenced a report from Pivotal Research Group from earlier this month that alleged that Facebook tells ad buyers it reaches more 18- to 24-year-olds in the United States than the census says actually exist in this country.

“If NBC was delivering non-human traffic, was involved in any type of the fraud or what we would call the underbelly of the business, we would be testifying in Washington. It’s gotta stop,” she said. “I would think that was a big alarm and wake-up call. We’ll see how it plays out.”

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Yaccarino, who worked at Turner before moving to NBC, had an interesting answer when I asked her to name one of her mentors in the business: Ted Turner.

“What I learned was an unwavering conviction for what you believe in. Unwavering. A ‘no’ didn’t really deter you. It only energized you. I was astounded by the conviction when there was a belief in what you do. That was very, very inspiring to me.”

John Ourand can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @Ourand_SBJ.