i worked for nielsen media for about 8 years.
started out as an interviewer (we’d call you up, asking if you wanted to have the box, in exchange for your household representing “millions of viewers” and a few tokens).
then, as a computer programmer, meshing the systems that allowed for the interview process.
finally, as a field tech, but one level up from the peoplemeters - my systems were regional as opposed to household level.
then i went to work someplace else in the MR community.
you are chosen due to strict screening guidelines:
each market must be representative, thus, if nielsen needs a single person of a certain age, income, ethnicity etc, or a family, or otherwise, you/they are screened for that. when i worked for them, we had like 40 markets and 5,000 households - probably more than that now.
if you accept to be a nielsen household, a local field rep is notified, and they will come to your house to verify that you fit the demographics.
every TV in your house will be wired up - even if you have a tv in the garage that you rarely/never watch, it will be hooked up. note that this did void the warranty on your tv. also note that nielsen would typically agree to pay for repair costs on any tv they are monitoring - such is the cost of losing you and having to recruit a new household. they may however only agree to pay a portion (percentage or fixed rate) of the repair - really depended on whether your household was difficult to replace or not.
my knowledge on how the standard meters work is as such:
every so often - like 15 to 30 minutes or so - the meter will blink and squawk and you have to pick up the meter remote and punch in who is watching. family members are pre-programmed - dad is assigned #1, mom #2 etc; for guests you have to punch in age & gender. nielsen was working on a passive people-meter, replete with face-recognition, when i left, but folks were pretty leery about that, as it contained a camera. it did, however, work with great accuracy and never mistook the family dog for the unfortunate overly-hairy 11 year-old wolf-boy you just adopted from venezuela.
so, the meter now knows who is watching, and when. and the networks/cable stations already identify what is being broadcast, by way of extra “data” that is on the lines that do not show up on yout tv screen. there are something like 15 extra lines of extra information above and below what your tv will display. this data carries closed caption info, as well as what program is airing, whether it’s original or a repeat, and more. and more important to nielsen, what commercial is airing. the part of nielsen i worked for was called Automated Measurement Of Line-Up. this system would track that extra data and automatically compile “playlists” of what was aired for every subscribing broadcaster in a market. if a program did not carry the info, we called the station to ask what they aired. this data was then correlated to what channel people had tuned into on their peoplemeters, and thus we now knew who is watching what, and when.
this was also valuable to advertisers, because some stations were notorious for “clipping” - cutting the last 5 seconds off every commercial and thus by program end they had an extra 30 or 60 seconds that they would sell as more advertising space.
i’m sure the next generation of peoplemeters did away with the correlating function and just recorded it on their own. they were also addressing VCR and TiVo playback etc at that time, well as systems that did not carry the extra identifying data (some cable companies etc stripped it all off for a variety of reasons).
the benefits of being a metered household are few - i wouldn’t do it. highly desirable (to nielsen) houeholds do get better treatment than the others, tho - there is usually a one-time initial cash payment (signing bonus if you will) that varys greatly for easy vs. difficult demographics.
another fact is that, since nielsen MUST be wholly representative of the market, they must meter households that have no telephone. which are few & far between anymore, but definitely exist in numbers. obviously impossible to recruit via telephone, they have door-to-door agents do the recruits, and, if you qualify, they will install a phone line (necessary to xmit the data overnight) and wire your tv('s). it doesn’t take more than a few bucks down at the local radio shack to be able to tap into that phone line, and we saw phone bills in excess of thousands per month on occasion. the first time they got a warning, the second time they did get disconnected and replaced.
otherwise, cash money payments were few - maybe once or twice a year, and very nominal. the longer you stayed in the program, you earned points, which you could puts towards something picked from a wholy unexciting gift catalog.
as far as the diaries go, those were doled out 4 times a year, as there are 4 sweeps periods that last 4 weeks each (most folks think it is once per year, and for only 1 week - “sweeps week”).
you might get nothing, or up to say 5 or 10 bucks to keep the diary - again - incentive reflects how difficult your demographic is to recruit and follow through. the big sweeps period had nielsen calling 250,000 households in that one 4-week period, and then following up on mailings, incentives etc, all done in-house (recruitment, printing, mailing, data tabulation etc) which was pretty hairy. they even had a few days of training where they’d dial thousands of households who thought they’d get a diary, then get a letter saying thanks but your call was a training call.
most folks have either seen the Roseanne episode, where the Connors keep a diary for a week and code it all to PBS when in fact they were watching trash TV, or the time David Letterman got a nielsen diary and kept it for a week and talked about it on his show each night (letterman happened while i was working there - to be reflective they must include households with unlisted phone #'s, so we had this system that generated valid area codes, prefixes and phone #'s, then threw out known listed #'s - the remainders were potential unlisted #'s).
it’s a huge process.
and if you ever want to get out of doing any sort of market research telephone survey in the future, the first few questions are always screening questions - say that you work in market research (or whatever industry pertains to the study they’re conducting - ie: banking etc) and you’re off the hook with a polite thank-you from the caller.
but i wish you wouldn’t, just cuz they can be fun sometimes, and it’s my job in the end. it’s not soliciting - they really do want your opinions about whatever it is, and the data really is looked at and your comments really are read by the people who make decisions…