Nielsen/Arbitron merger puts cross-platform data on the horizon

Selling inventory across properties and platforms is historically difficult, plagued by confusion for the buyer and heavy educational lift for the seller. Part of the challenge lies in reconciling different measurement methods. When media planners must grapple with opportunities defined partly by siloed data formats, buying naturally falls within those silos.

One potential in the Nielsen acquisition of Arbitron, approved on Friday and expected to close next Monday, is the creation of cross-platform measurement standards that will smooth over the knowledge gaps between radio, streaming, and television consumption. Ideally, agencies seeking demographic or other audience categories would view an integrated usage landscape and position their brands with greater intelligence and efficiency. On the content side, seats might be more equitably positioned around the table, given a smarter and more integrated view of audience proportions. As Tom Taylor remarked, to many stakeholders a utopian integrated market “is so close they can taste it.”

The Nielsen/Arbitron merger was agreed upon in principle in April, as a $48-per-share grab worth $1.6B. Friday’s FTC approval hinges on remedies designed to solve potential competitive strangulation.

The agency’s concern is that, in eliminating competition between the two data giants, and creating a cross-platform behemoth, clients would pay more for consolidated measurement than they did when dealing with separate entities. Further, a discouraging Goliath-vs.-upstarts scenario looms large in the FTC’s consideration of this merger.

The solution requires Nielsen to provide intellectual assets and technical assistance to an FTC-approved third party — a remedy that does more than just allow competition; it fosters it. The remedy essentially creates and nurtures a startup cross-platform competitor. (FTC PR here. Full statement here.)

The technology in question is Arbitron’s Portable People Meter (PPM), currently in use by ESPN and comScore. The FTC mandate requires that licensing arrangement and product support to continue for eight years. Nielsen also clarified in this morning’s conference call its obligation to license and support the PPM platform for other emerging companies.

Speaking of competition, the FTC commissioners are not speaking with a unified voice in this case. Commissioner Joshua Wright disputes the remedy, and asserts that the merger should transpire sans the competition remedies. Wright’s headline quote: “In fact, there is no commercially available national syndicated cross-platform audience measurement service today. The Commission thus challenges the proposed transaction based upon what must be acknowledged as a novel theory—that is, that the merger will substantially lessen competition in a market that does not today exist.” (FTC dissenting view here.)

Commissioner Wright’s argument aside, the FTC remedy is not inconveniencing Nielsen CEO David Calhoun’s buoyant reception of the acquisition conditions. The Nielsen chief’s public statement calls the FTC package a “highly acceptable outcome.”

Brad Hill