For decades, Nielsen Holdings ’ TV viewing data has underpinned the vast bulk of transactions between media companies and advertisers. But recent events, including ComScore’s inroads in local TV and Nielsen’s ongoing contract dispute with CBS Corp. , point to intensifying competition.

To be sure, ad buyers want more options, not a switch from one dominant player to another, and Nielsen won’t be dislodged from the top spot any time soon, according to industry executives.

But as traditional audiences scatter, pressure for better metrics is giving media companies—as well as Comscore, Nielsen’s main rival—new traction against TV’s kingmaker. 

Comscore has increased its contracts with station groups in the U.S. by 20% year-over-year going into 2019, according to the company, including an increase in exclusive contracts.

Media buyers are broadly hoping for a rapprochement, as access to Nielsen’s data for both the media buyer and seller makes it easier for them to choose and purchase TV ads. But the drama has some buyers wondering whether Comscore’s currency, which they are increasingly using at the local level, could also serve as an alternative at the national level.

For now, Nielsen remains the currency of choice in transactions between ad buyers and national TV networks, and many station groups with Comscore contracts still use Nielsen in large markets.

“The industry relies on Nielsen’s accredited measurement to underpin more than $130 billion in advertising that is transacted each year,” said a Nielsen spokesman in a statement. The spokesman emphasized that Nielsen measures viewers down to the “persons-level.”

Different metrics

Unlike Nielsen’s, Comscore’s main currency isn’t based on a panel of individuals who represent chosen demographics. Rather, it has used data from devices such as set-top boxes to determine what different profiles of household—households with women aged 18 to 49, for example—are watching on TV.

Comscore’s product is in some cases seen as more appealing for local stations, in part because its methodology tends to reflect more positively on their performance, media executives said.

Nielsen is working on an updated currency that uses information gleaned from set-top boxes and other data as well as its panel. The product has been introduced in some small markets, but a wider rollout that was planned for 2018 has been delayed, a person familiar with the matter said.

“There’s a lack of confidence in the [Neilsen’s] new methodology and inconsistency as it reflects on our markets,” said Bob Smith, chief operating officer of Gray Television. Gray recently expanded its relationship with Comscore and some of its stations exclusively use Comscore, but the company still works with Nielsen in some large markets, Mr. Smith said.

The fight over the measurement pie is intensifying in a period of transition at both companies. Both Comscore and Nielsen appointed ambitious new CEOs last year. Comscore is seeking to move past years of accounting irregularities, while Nielsen has come under investor pressure to sell assets.

For advertisers who want an improved way of accurately gauging TV and video viewership across platforms, a key question is which of the two companies will invest faster in new products and infrastructure.

“We want competition, and we want the competition to push both Nielsen and Comscore and potentially others into getting us the measurement we need,” said Jane Clarke, chief executive at the Coalition for Innovation in Media Measurement. “You will definitely see some proposed new currencies in the coming years.”

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