Different 'Days’

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Fanning an ongoing flame, cable programmers last week voiced concern to Nielsen Media Research about how networks are being ranked in the ratings based on their own definition of what a “day” is.

In a letter to the ratings company, 10 cable research chiefs — from outfits including the ABC Cable Networks Group, Court TV, Turner Networks, ESPN, NBC Universal, Lifetime Television and Discovery Networks U.S. — raised the issue of the purported “redefining” a key traditional daypart: total-day numbers.

Nielsen, at the request of MTV Networks, earlier this year began breaking out ratings separately for Nickelodeon and Nick at Nite, the nighttime block of old sitcoms aimed at adults.

In July, Nielsen agreed with the cable programmers that in order to be ranked in a “consistently” defined daypart, like primetime, a cable network has to run programming during at least 51% of that daypart. That meant that Nick would no longer be listed in primetime cable rankings.

But Nielsen came up with different criteria for total day. Nielsen changed the name for that daypart to “total programming day,” and essentially said that cable networks are free to define what they consider their “day” of programming to be. That decision was unsatisfactory to the cable programmers who sent this week’s letter.

“Redefining traditional dayparts is not an action we suggested nor is it one we take lightly,” the letter said. “We will be closely monitoring the use of the rules and conditions for networks making claims about 'Total Programming Day.’ ”

The cable research chiefs fear ads comparing ratings for partial-day networks and full-day networks will create misleading impressions about the strength of the part-time channels.

“They’ve [Nielsen] now told us total day doesn’t exist. They’re going to call it total programming day, which may be fine. But it may be that it’s very easily abused if Nielsen doesn’t monitor how people use it,” said Darren Campo, Court TV’s senior vice president of programming strategy and research. “We don’t know — now you’ve opened another can of worms, potentially.’”

Nielsen said it would respond to the letter shortly. But spokesman Matt Tatham said Nielsen has mandated that to make a competitive claim in an ad, a cable network must exactly explain how it defines its total programming day.

Nickelodeon doesn’t think the objections have any merit. “There’s a perception that total day has been radically redefined, when in fact Nielsen only clarified the existing definition and renamed it,” Nick spokesman David Bittler said. “We strongly believe that media buyers and their clients are able to safely and intelligently navigate through the rankings as they always have.”

Still, one research executive argued Nielsen is being inconsistent — defining what constitutes primetime but letting cable networks define their own total day.

“Therefore you won’t have apples-to-apples comparisons,” the official said. “What we’re saying is that doesn’t make sense. We’re registering our dismay with that.”

“The result of this uproar is that there’s been a bright light shown on the whole matter,” the research executive added. “Now everybody is aware that something is going on with people’s definitions of ratings.”

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