November 3, 2008

what is a nielsen family and why won’t they adopt me?

Let’s be honest, no fool is reading this blog right now. It’s the day before one of the most emotional and contentious elections in history. You’re glued to any and all of the 24-hour news networks obsessively checking projections and early exit polls.

But if you have landed here, then you must be looking for a breather. A little break from the insanity to avoid hair loss and cardiac arrest. So, let’s talk about a completely different kind of poll number: a Nielsen Rating. Exciting, right?

I realized that I have no idea where TV ratings come from. I have a vague idea of what Nielsen Ratings are, but don’t these only measure families and/or households that have been designated “Nielsen families”? Who chooses these families? How nuclear are we talking? How do we know the numbers aren’t skewed? I don’t own a home and move every 1.5 to 2 years. How do I know the Nielsen people haven’t been looking all over for me? What does that mean for the accurate measurement of my demographic?

I realize that this system has been well respected and relied upon for decades by some of the most savvy business professionals in the country – TV and ad execs. There must be a reason for that. So, I consulted a trusty source* for some research.

Here what I found out:

  • Nielsen Media Research is an independent firm that operates in over 100 countries and was founded in 1923
  • Ratings are gathered by one of two ways: 1) Self-reporting Diaries, where viewers of various demographics are asked to keep a written record of his or her viewing habits, generally for a week, in exchange for being advanced a nominal amount (up to $30 in the United States) – PICK ME! PICK ME! 2) Set Meters, which are small devices connected to televisions in selected homes.
  • In 2005, Nielsen began measuring the usage of digital video recordings (TiVo, DVR) and initial results indicate that time-shifted viewing will have a significant impact on television ratings, but networks are not yet figuring these new results into their ad rates at the resistance of advertisers because no one watches ads on recorded programs.

I did find some criticism of the rating system:

  • Since viewers are aware of being part of the Nielsen sample, it can lead to bias in recording and viewing habits. Isn’t this psychology 101? But it is interesting in this case because, compared to the set meter, self-reporting diaries are more likely to report news programming and popular prime time programming and less likely to report daytime and late night viewing. People don’t want to admit watching General Hospital and Carson Daly!
  • Another criticism of the measuring system itself is that it is not random in the statistical sense of the word. Only a small fraction of the population is selected and only those that actually accept are used as the sample size.

Nielsen is supposedly making improvements to the ratings system by finding ways to include "group" viewing settings like college dormitories, sports bars, airport lounges, etc. which are not traditionally measured. They are also incorporating an Internet ratings measurement system that will allow them to collect demographics on YouTube, iTunes, and network site viewings.

We're going to be seeing a lot of major decisions about network line-ups in the coming weeks. For all of the fan outrage that comes out of show cancellations, it's pretty amazing that there is basically one system of measurement upon which all decisions are made. With the transition to all digitial broadcasting in 2009, will it be possible to just collect anonynmous tally of all televisions tuned into a program? Is that an invasion of privacy?

There's an interesting site that tracks a "cancellation index." Check it out. I'm not sure if that was of interest to anyone but me. You can now go back to CNN.



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