Nielsen Ratings

This column talks about using “People Meters” to accurately measure viewing habits.

I’m wondering about what the standards are, with regards to consider whether a program is being watched.

Suppose, on Super Bowl Sunday, I, a non-football watcher, get curious and switch to the Bowl for 7-8 minutes, am I counted ?

Also, am I counted for all the channels I check out in the Bowl timeslot ?

Cecil didn’t answer this most important question, even though it wasn’t specifically asked. How are these people chosen? Do I have a chance to get my own box? If so, how?

I studied Advertising in college, and was recently chosen to keep an Arbitron diary.

The day is divided into 15-minute segments. If you watch/listen to a show for five consecutive minutes, you are counted as having tuned in for that 15-minute block. True, you can, in theory, watch three different shows every five minutes. In reality, that doesn’t happen too much. Not sure how the black box handles that. For the diary, you are on your honor.

Radio was easy – I listen to the news and weather every morning as I eat breakfast, and that’s it. I also kept a TV diary a few years back and – yes, I admit it – I wrote down what I wanted to watch, rather than what I actually did watch. (For the most part they overlapped, but I remember there was one show I missed, but wrote it down anyway.)

Now, how do they deal with VCRs and time-shifting? (Neither of which existed in the late Paleozoic, when I went to college…)

– Beruang

So, for the Super Bowl, does viewing for a single 15-minute block count as watching the whole game ? The 130 million who “watch” the Bowl, are they

  1. those watched a certain minimum percentage of 15-min blocks

  2. those watched even a single 15-min block or

  3. those who watched the whole thing ?

I think, a fair method would be 1.
Anyone else ?

I read an article about thirty-five, forty years ago about a company that was trying to compete with Nielsen in counting TV audience heads. They wanted effortless demographic information so they designed into their Black Box a 16mm camera that would take a photo every fifteen minutes while the television was on. Every week or two the test household would receive a new cartridge and mail the old one in. The date, time, and channel were recorded on the frame, and the company could count noses and even tell, at least approximately, the ages of those watching.

The head of the company said that after a while, people would forget that there was a camera taking a picture of their living room every few minutes, then he commented, “You’d be surprised at some of the things folks do in front of their television.”
DD

Nice.

Hello-

This may be of interest. I was a Nielsen household in 1995. I lived in an apartment (on Illinois Street) in Urbana, IL. I had two different roomates during that time. I was a first year grad student at UIUC.

Some dude just showed up, and said that that address is always a Nielsen house. They hook up a VERY ANNOYING box which makes a mess of your VCR and TV wiring, and then there is a confusing remote, which must be programed. And it is easy to screw up the programming, especially if you (gasp) want to watch shows you tape on the VCR (which they basically had no provision to monitor). There is a VERY ANNOYING button on said remote which you are supposed to push to show you’re watching. It will blink every so often, randomly, to ask if you’re watching, and you’re supposed to push it then. (Like… you’re watching the remote, not the TV). It was a terrible, annoying, very error prone setup. We would get calls if the thing decided we weren’t pushing the button “enough”.

And what did we get for all this? 10 bucks and we got to choose a piece of crap from a catalog (99 cent kitchen scissors). That’s all. That’s it, for year of annoyances. When they called me after I moved to ask me how the experience went, I ranted. My roomate would PURPOSELY either not push the button, push it when he wasn’t watching, and screw up the programming so it wasn’t recording the correct channel. I didn’t blame him.

We didn’t realize how NON-transparent the monitoring apparatus would be, and somehow I thought we’d get some money every month- no, sir.

Think of how many more “households” there were like ours. And there are only 5,000 of them, determining the viewing habits of, basically, the entire country. It’s a joke, and a sham.

For the amount of money Nielsen must get for selling their ratings, they should at least compensate the families a little more realistically! Again, I stress that the setup was extremely poorly designed and did not work well. If we had been paid even remotely appropriately for the amount of work and attention it took, I’m sure we would have taken it a bit more seriously and would have made an effort to give decent statistics of our viewing.

Once when I was also a grad student in Charlottesville, virginia, we had a diary sent to our apartment wtih a … ONE DOLLAR BILL in it. Great. We do how much work filling out this “diary” (a long, annoying detailed diary) so Nielsen can sell it? Ugh.

I’d be happy to answer any questions about this stuff. Once you participate, you know that the Nielsen ratings are, basically, a load of crap. -Jenny

Back in the 80’s, one of my electrical professors was selected as one of those who determine what goes into those little books. At some point, he appeared on the McNeil-Lerher Report [sic] and talked about how easy it was to mislead. Even his one his kids admitted that he would exaggerate how much he watched the show (I suppose it was to protect the show from cancellation). Well, a couple of days after that segment, the local paper said that Nielsen’s was suing the family for “fraud”. I don’t what the outcome was, but I thought it was pretty silly for them to go after someone pointing out the flaws in this process. It sounded like an attack on 1st Amendment rights, (i.e., a SLAP lawsuit),but I can’t recall if there was some contractual obligation with respect to the viewers when they mail in the book.

When I was “selected” by the Nielsen’s about seven years later, I was not at all forgiving about the above shenanigans, and gave the “History Channel” and the “Discover Channel” some extra merit points. :wink:

BTW, on the same broadcast segment, the Nielsens agency was investigating using facial identification as a way of monitoring programming usage. The engineers consulting on this project even admitted that it was rather Orwellian in it’s approach.

Back in the 80’s, one of my electrical professors was selected as one of those who determine what goes into those little books. At some point, he appeared on the McNeil-Lerher Report [sic] and talked about how easy it was to mislead. Even his one his kids admitted that he would exaggerate how much he watched the show (I suppose it was to protect the show from cancellation). Well, a couple of days after that segment, the local paper said that Nielsen’s was suing the family for “fraud”. I don’t what the outcome was, but I thought it was pretty silly for them to go after someone pointing out the flaws in this process. It sounded like an attack on 1st Amendment rights, (i.e., a SLAP lawsuit),but I can’t recall if there was some contractual obligation with respect to the viewers when they mail in the book.

When I was “selected” by the Nielsen’s about seven years later, I was not at all forgiving about the above shenanigans, and gave the “History Channel” and the “Discover Channel” some extra merit points. :wink:

BTW, on the same broadcast segment, the Nielsens agency was investigating using facial identification as a way of monitoring programming usage. The engineers consulting on this project even admitted that it was rather Orwellian in it’s approach.

No comment on the article itself, but I wanted to take a second to recognize Slug Signorino’s artwork for the column. I usually don’t really notice much about his illoustrations, but this one - man, that’s pure genius.

Back in the early nineties, the local Fox Affiliate in my area used an interesting ratings boosting scheme. Broatcasters ocasionally intersperse a “station identification” promo in between product comercials, and the Local Fox station had theirs specifically targeted at the Nielsen families.

“If you need to write it down, you’re watching the station spelled W-F-X-G, Fox 54.”

To most people it was either just background noise or “WTF? Why would I need to write it down?” For the diary keepers, it was a subtle reminder of “hey, that’s right, I’m supposed to be writing down what I’m watching.”

Back in the mid-80s, I got one of those diaries from Arbitron. It turned out I was moving that week and I hardly watched TV at all. And all they included was a quarter!

Of course the diary got misplaced in the move. And then they sent a notice that they’d like the diaries back as soon as the week ended because some client wanted the data right away. And this time they included a whole dollar! Wow, such generosity.

I didn’t find the diary until about a week or two after that, but I did send it in. I hoped they appreciated my data, such as it was.

As a sidenote, this outdated sampling system will soon be gone, anyway, supplanted by the ability of the new digital technology to monitor each and every cable box. I work in the cable industry, and for the past few years there has been a huge rebuilding of the infrastructure, mostly to provide two-way communication for broadband internet. Once this process is completed, the cable companies will have a wealth of data available, and information like that can be sold for big money to the advertisers and producers.

Part of this new world of high speed, networked entertainment is that advertising will shift from program specific (you buy a commercial slot on a particular program for everyone to see) to comsumer specific (you target only those cable boxes where the viewers are likely to use your product). People in houses next door to each other might not see the same commercials on the same program, say if one family has children, and another doesn’t.

This still leaves the problem of television sets turned on but not watched. In my household, I often wander around turning off televisions that are blaring into an empty room. Statistics can be used here, as a survey can find out an average wasted viewing time and factor that in.

Jerry

Oooh! Oooh! I now know to fill out all forms as if no one is living in the house. If I must fill out something, I’ll say a single person, over 95 years old, who never buys anything!!

We got diaries (and fifty-cent pieces as the rewards, which are not commonly-used Canadian currency, rather like a silver dollar) when I was about twelve. We had to have one for each TV in the house, which meant one for the big set in the living room, one for the mini space-saver set in my parents’ bedroom, and one for my $10 garage-sale special that only got two channels in my room.

I have no idea how the selection process works up here. We were in a rural area, so we were mailed the booklets after we said how many TVs we had. We had no cable or satellite TV, just an aerial on top of the house, and on a good day we could get ten channels. (This was in 1989.) There was no machine involved, and I’ve never heard of a machine or monitoring device being used in Canada.

The diaries had an ‘on’ column and an ‘off’ column, and went in thirty-minute increments. If during a particular half-hour your TV was on, you had to put a mark in the ‘on’ column, and enter the channel in the channel column, and write the name of the show you were watching in the content column. I think if we were watching something on the VCR it counted as ‘on’, and we had to make a note that the show being watched was on tape and not on a channel. I think we also had to make note of times when we were taping something from TV but not watching it at that time.

The other thing was that since the increments were thirty minutes long, they wanted you to mark ‘on’ if the set was on for more than five minutes during the half hour. I thought that was stupid, because I might need five minutes to decide that I didn’t like a show.

If my recollection of statistical theory is correct (and STAT 456 was a long, long time ago), then there are ways to correct for people exaggerating, fabricating or otherwise falsifing their Neisen viewing habits. For example, for every peson who supports the “Discovery Channel” with non-existant viewing, there are probably 10 or 20 people who claim that they were watching “Joe Millionare.”

Also, cable stations use a different type of service to determine their ratings. They tend to conduct random surveys of people to determine whether they are aware of the channel’s programming or content. For example, more people know Steve Irwin or Hilde, Wayne, Verne, Tighe, etc. than would be suggested by their show’s respective Neilsen numbers.

Which isn’t error free, because things get parodied, and people become familiar with the content without being frequent watchers. For instance, I’ve seen a few episodes of Trading Spaces, because my sister watches the show. And I’ve seen the ads from time to time. So I recognize the name Hilde. But that doesn’t mean I watch the show - the only time I watch it is when I’m visiting my sister, and she has it on. But a survey about the show would indicate I have pretty good knowledge of it. Well, reasonable knowledge anyway.

Similarly, my first encounter with The Crocodile Hunterp was via Saturday Night Live parody. I had know idea what they were parodying when I first saw the skit. I subsequently saw a special that ran on one of the major networks that was excerpts from the show and found out who he is and what he does. Then I saw him on commercials and Jay Leno, and there was even the movie that I saw advertised. And some kids I know really like it. But other than the one special on network TV, I don’t watch the show. But a survey would show at least some knowledge. They’d have to ask about specific events.

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.

anyway…

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…

Wow! Thanks for all that info. But I’m still a bit confused over one aspect. You mentioned that viewers punch in data every 15/30 minutes. So, how does a program get counted ?

Suppose I switch the TV on to Ch3. I enter data. 4 minutes later, I’m watching Ch4. 10 minutes later, I’m back to Ch3. I again enter data. In 2 minutes again, I switch to Ch4…

In short, what constitutes having watched a program ?

Having watched a certain percentage of it?
or all of it?
or a certain percentage of what you happen to be watching when the box collects data?

As a hijack, does anyone know where I can find information on the Hooper and Crossley systems of ratings, which were used in the days of radio and early television?