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Nielsen Buys Arbitron, Silences Competition

The PPM... Woulda, Coulda

Arbitron announced it was allowing itself to be acquired by Nielsen, ending competition in major media metrics markets and putting an end to its pattern of occasionally challenging Nielsen's right to dominate TV ratings. Nielsen will pick up measurement abilities it currently lacks in the outdoors and sports events categories, in addition to eliminating what little competition it had for price and innovation.

[An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Nielsen owned Adweek. Nielsen sold Adweek a few years ago.]

The greatest scrutiny placed on media measurement companies typically comes from competitive media measurement companies, revealing where methodology and bias create pockets of difference between results. Television as a medium never had much of this capacity to have a reality check, and now it is unlikely to even retain what it has had.

At first blush, it would look like this is a merger that would not be allowed for antitrust reasons, allowing a dominant player to eliminate its remaining competition. But in the arcane field of antitrust, the definition of the market determines whether or not regulators would be able to squint and allow this to happen. If the market is defined as the $6 billion certified ratings industry, one could argue that Arbitron has already been so singularly unsuccessful in this endeavor, that a merger would not effectively change the situation for the ratings consumer.

The real competitive element that Arbitron has inserted into the market, however, has not been - despite Arbitron's efforts - by grabbing ratings marketshare. Instead, Arbitron - especially with its PPM innovation of the mid 2000's - has placed scrutiny on Nielsen's methodology. Even without taking its business away, it provided agencies and media buyers ammunition to question methodologies that otherwise would bend inexorably toward the media sellers who pay most of Nielsen's bills.

Arbitron came close to pushing television ratings measurement into a competitive situation forcing the research firms to provide the sort of instant and accurate results that online media executives have come to demand as a cost of doing business. Nielsen even eventually opted to license the technology after having first poo-poo'ed it. Nielsen ultimately backed out, in a move that might be seen in hindsight as the beginning of the end for Arbitron, and for the sorts of TV media metrics that back then seemed inevitable. (The Project Apollo effot that Nielsen then claimed would replace it was also canned.)

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