If TV ratings are fake, in what should advertisers trust? Some is the dilemma in China today, as news leaked that, CSM, the only Chinese company still churning out TV ratings data, may be massaging numbers for customers willing to pay the price.
This is big news (for some people), because after the withdrawal of Nielsen from the Chinese market, CSM is the only game left in town. Nielsen left because of a corporate re-shuffle, but also because it could not crack the Chinese market. The problem was twofold. First, for all the hoopla regarding the death of TV, it is actually doing okay. In the United States, while traditional media like magazine are going down faster than a rock, TV is apparently is holding steady, both in terms of viewership and revenue.
Call it the paradox of the Internet era. People went negative on TV because in this age where everyone is connected and could get everything they want. The scholar Cass Sunstein famously worried that, with the Internet rapidly becoming a mass media, every consumer will get a routine dose of “daily me” tailor specifically for them. That did happen, but TV didn’t suffer as big a hit as other media; apparently, the habit of sitting in front of a tube and doing nothing is just too strong.
This fortunate fate has left TV as the last true mass media; while less people are watching TV today, its relative importance has only grown, and this has allowed TV stations to charge a great deal of money for their time. This is especially true in China, where TV remains the king, and big players such as the state owned CCTV and local powerhouses such as Hunan Satellite TV can still draw millions and make fortunes.
With the media business still being within the realm of political control (what isn’t), the likes of CCTV wields enormous political power in addition to its financial strength. And lo and behold, it is a major backer of CSM. Obviously, this is put Nielsen at a disadvantage from the get go.
Yet, what really sunk Nielsen was not its lacking of major backers. As an international standard bearer, Nielsen could afford to stand on its own. What it truly lacked, however, is the understanding of how the ad game is really played in China.
The advertising business has always been opaque and filled with its share of under-the-table type of deal, a la Mad Men Season 5 style. But the game in China is especially fierce. Again, there are two reasons for that. First of all, the majority of Chinese business don’t really have any use for marketing if it cannot bring back the dough (and then some) immediately. In the Wild East, tangible assets (preferable accumulated quickly and can be transferred overseas a.s.a.p.) are all that matters. Secondly, Chinese businesses have no use for the so-called third party and the rule of business. In an environment where everybody have a mentality of “I got mine, Jack” and where everything goes, no one thinks anyone has impartial or any rules as set in stone.
So basically, Nielsen got the business run from the beginning. Ratings themselves are important, sure, but how it is used is even more important. Only when the ratings become part of the Chinese way of doing business can they truly function, and sadly for Nielsen, its products were simply never part of the mix.
So while CSM’s negligence, even malignance is detestable, it probably wouldn’t come as a shock to the industry. There, then, is the lesson for everyone who wants to break into China or the Chinese advertising business: get yourself dirty and learn the rule of the game.