Why does Neilsen rule?
March 14, 2009 8:06 AM   Subscribe

TV ratings -- so 20th Century?

Mr. thinkpiece's show (no details, not promoting, I promise) is piloting in a great slot in a couple of days. The bigwigs are going to watch the numbers and decide whether to continue with more episodes. After alerting everyone we know, frustrated because their opinions won't count, can someone give me a commonsense explanation of ratings measurement? I understand Neilsen ratings, but, heck, isn't that a bizarrely antiquated way to measure? I've been watching TV for a long time, and I've never known anyone who's had a Neilsen box. Why wouldn't TVs with viewing monitors be available to the general public who want to participate (with consent and legal disclaimers and everything necessary) so the measured population could be bigger and more randomized? By the way, I have Googled, but I'm interested in this group's thoughts, not simply the mechanics of Neilsen ratings.
posted by thinkpiece to Media & Arts (11 answers total)
Some of the largest U.S. cable operators are quietly testing a service in nearly 2 million homes that may offer the first real competitor—or complement—to Nielsen ratings. The technology can record every click of the remote control by every digital subscriber. And it offers an instant census of millions of homes that dwarfs Nielsen’s current universe of thousands.

Cable operators have already begun tracking digital-cable viewership on a massive scale—without Nielsen. Comcast is collecting viewer data from 1.2 million homes in Philadelphia, for example, while Time Warner’s Oceanic Cable is crunching viewing patterns in 200,000 households in Hawaii.

posted by bunnytricks at 8:12 AM on March 14, 2009

If the monitors are available t anyone who wants them, then by definition, they are not randomized. It's like a poll on, say the NYT Web site -- it's not random because it's polling people who opt in to be polled. (I'm not defending the old system or trying to snark on your question because it does seem so old-school when you can track Web traffic so much better than TV viewing.)
posted by Airhen at 8:24 AM on March 14, 2009

I talked to a teevee exec at one of the studios about this recently, and she told me the basic consensus is that Nielsen ratings are horrible and inaccurate, but all they have right now. It comes up a lot with shows that the networks suspect are more popular than Nielsen gives them credit for, particularly due to Tivo and other services. They are desperate for a new rating system, and surely one will come. Of course, that doesn't help you this season, so good luck.
posted by Bookhouse at 8:29 AM on March 14, 2009

Response by poster: No snark taken, Airhen! So, yes, I meant randomized in that the monitors could be on or off according to the measurer's filtering requirements for whatever they are measuring. The viewers themselves wouldn't know if they were being measured, just that at some point over the life of their implanted TV they could be measured.
posted by thinkpiece at 8:29 AM on March 14, 2009

There's something called "Live+7 DVR" ratings, which I've noticed cropping up in a lot of PR/"news" stories lately, like this one about Dollhouse and Terminator.
posted by bcwinters at 8:52 AM on March 14, 2009

I understand Neilsen ratings, but, heck, isn't that a bizarrely antiquated way to measure?

No, its statistics. Its a pretty accurate system considering. Funny how people only complain about it when the results dont live up to their own biases. For instance, I like Seinfeld and it got great ratings. I dont dispute the ratings. I also like Futurama and it didnt get great ratings, suddenly I skeptical of Neilsen! See how that works?

I dont think its antiquated. Networks also buy Tivo ratings which is a lot more high tech. If there was a big discrepency between what Tivo produces and what Neilsen produces then the networks would obviously know about it and complain. I wouldnt be surprised if they were pretty close, with the exception of tivo ratings only working with people with tivo boxes who are probably in a different income level than the average tv watcher. Im sure they have other sources of data and aggregate them somehow.

Its also important to keep in mind that a show that may be objectively good, smart, witty, etc may not appeal to the lowest common demographic who thinks that TMZ is the best show ever. When youre trying to appeal to millions of people you'll find that the common man isnt interested in the things youre interested in and probably doesnt have the sophistication you and your husband have when it comes to appreciating television. Sure, the show may be awesome, but that doesnt equal ratings. Why should it? TV isnt a meritocracy. Its a popularity contest.

I've been watching TV for a long time, and I've never known anyone who's had a Neilsen box.

I dont personally know any climatologists but I do know that Global Warming is happening.

Why wouldn't TVs with viewing monitors be available to the general public who want to participate

Well, its not random then and the system would be gamed by people like you, networks, crazed fans, etc.

I think the real problem here is that the TV industry used to let shows run for a while to let word of mouth get around, let writers and actors get feedback, get casual watchers, etc. Nowadays shows are lucky to get to episode 4 if they dont draw in big numbers immediately. This isnt a problem of how Neilsen works, its a problem of how your husband's industry works.
posted by damn dirty ape at 12:24 PM on March 14, 2009 [1 favorite]

I know a couple who had a Neilsen box. They never watch TV, so it was kind of funny.
posted by zsazsa at 3:20 PM on March 14, 2009

While it is assumed to be inaccurate don't forget that the box in the home method actually tracks demographics, in theory, as well as how many eyeballs are watching. That's something that simple "what channel is the PVR on" stats can't tell you.
posted by NailsTheCat at 4:13 PM on March 14, 2009

We were recently approached about getting a Nielsen box - but we're canceling cable.
posted by lowlife at 5:51 PM on March 14, 2009

Its a pretty accurate system considering.

No, it's really not. Nielsen totally excluded college dorm viewers, for just the worst example, until 2007, and then factored in college dorm TV by "extrapolating from the viewing habits of just 130 students around the country who have agreed to have electronic monitors installed in their dorm rooms."

Calling Nielsen "pretty accurate" makes no sense. Like Bookhouse says, it's what TV execs had to work with, but they (and advertisers) know full well how vague and unreliable Nielsen ratings are.
posted by mediareport at 5:53 PM on March 14, 2009

As others have said, Nielsen is most likely king because it has been on the throne for several decades and a clear successor has not yet arisen. And they have (as bcwinters notes) adapted enough to modern viewing methods to satisfy the content providers that they are still relevant. In the past few years, Nielsen has added specialized counts that factor in DVR usage. Finally, for new pilots that are not pet projects, it is an easy gauge (even if it is an inaccurate one) for networks to use.

But there are indications out there that networks are looking outside of Nielsen to judge the relative value of their shows.

DVR counts are likely to be increasingly important to network executives, as (1) more and more people have DVRs, so timeshifting will continue to grow (2) the data will more consistently be mined and reported, so numbers will be more accurate and (3) even as DVRs proliferate across all age groups, the adoption rate will likely be greater among the younger (more coveted) demographics, so live viewing numbers will skew higher for shows that older viewers watch and be less instructive to networks.

In fact, there are increasing instances where networks have basically ignored terrible Nielsen ratings and continued to hype shows that they believe in or that are clearly in the zeitgeist, like the CW has done with Gossip Girl. That show even acknowledged their situation in an episode, where a character made a throwaway comment like "who watches TV on a TV anymore, anyway?" Also, in a Bill Simmons (aka the Sports Guy) podcast on ESPN, I think Peter Berg (one of the exec producers of Friday Night Lights on NBC) said that the big DVR numbers are what saved their show in the first season when the traditional Nielsen numbers were dismal.

On the advertising side, TiVo has a growing service called StopWatch that uses its big database to track what commercials TiVo viewers are actually watching (vs. fast forwarding through). This helps advertisers create commercials people might actually stop to see and judge where to place them.

TV by the numbers has some really good, consistently updated data on the various ratings numbers and count methodologies if you are interested in that sort of thing.

Good luck to Mr. thinkpiece on his show!
posted by AgentRocket at 8:04 AM on March 15, 2009

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