Measuring TV Viewers

March, 2005

March, 2005, LOS ANGELES - For the last nine months, I have been engaged in a challenging, and, to my surprise, immensely informative charge. Last summer, I was asked to serve on a task force suggested by New York Congressman Charles Rangel and chaired by former Illinois Representative, Cardis Collins, to evaluate a new technology for measuring television viewing - a system called the Local People Meter.

Like all of you, I had known of the Nielsen ratings. For people working in television, the ratings mean life or death. If your rating is good, your show is renewed and you survive for another season. If it's low, your show is cancelled and you find yourself among the unemployed. This recently happened to the latest Star Trek spin-off, "Enterprise." Its low rating killed it.

Yet, I knew very little about how the ratings were arrived at. It was a mystery to me. The Nielsen rating was life or death to us and I didn't know how this murderous and, at other times, life sustaining system worked.

I'd never met anyone in the Nielsen rating pool. So serving on the Independent Task Force on Television Measurement was an eye-opening education. Beyond learning about the Nielsen rating process as it had been practiced, I learned about the new technology being introduced as well as something about technologies yet to come. I learned of the scores of interests, other than those of us involved in television production, that are vitally concerned with the Nielsen rating - advertisers, ad agencies, broadcasters, language groups, statisticians, demographers, researchers, and many other sectors. I was staggered by the huge advertising dollars, in the tens of billions that are determined by the ratings numbers. I learned a lot.

I vaguely knew that the Nielsen ratings had something to do with measuring the television viewing of representative people selected, based on the last census. These individuals would be requested to keep a diary of the shows they watched. Indeed this proved to be the system as it had been. This rating system was based on the assumption that the people selected would be diligent and honest. Most people were but others were not. Even if a person had not watched their favorite show for whatever reason, that person might have written it down in their Nielsen diary just to keep their favorite show's ratings up. There was virtually no way of verifying the accuracy of the diaries.

The technology being introduced - the People Meter - eliminated that unreliability. A device was to be attached to every set in the household; each member of the selected household had a button that he or she was to press when viewing and everything that particular individual watched would be recorded. The device would capture even the channel surfing of that viewer. This was certainly an improvement over the old diary system.

Because today we have so many channels and so many choices, inevitably the ratings of the big networks were affected. In the days when we had a limited number of options, the big networks had massive numbers. Now, with so much competition, some of the big networks numbers, inevitably, were adversely impacted. Some of those affected networks challenged the precision of the People Meter count. There also was the allegation that minority audiences were not accurately counted. Thus, the Independent Task Force on Television Measurement was formed to make an objective assessment of the accuracy of the People Meter system.

The Task Force met and received testimonies from many individuals representing myriads of interests. We met with them throughout the country. We formed committees to address specific areas of concern. Because the members were located throughout the country, there were countless telephonic meetings. The members of the Task Force worked tirelessly and collegially. We listened to the many testimonies; made findings and crafted recommendations for improvements to the accuracy of the measurement. After nine months of dedicated work, the report of the Task Force on Television Measurement was completed in March. Those interested in looking over the full report can download it here and get more information on the Nielsen ratings by clicking Our Report has been well received. Nielsen has accepted the Report and our recommendations. Nielsen has already implemented many of the recommendations and others soon will be.

My time with the Task Force has been personally enriching. I now have a deeper appreciation of the complexity of our dynamically transforming society both technologically and demographically.

Demographically, the ethnic population of this nation is growing not only explosively but also in multifaceted combinations. Caribbean Africans may be Black but culturally Spanish speaking Latino Blacks. Asians from South American countries like Peru or Argentina are likewise Spanish speaking. The population from the Middle East is growing rapidly in certain parts of the country. Blacks from Africa are now adding to the mix of languages spoken in the United States. Intermarriages are creating a myriad ethnic and language combinations. Children of these intermarriages are forging new self-identities. The buying power of these groups is rising faster than that of the non-ethnic population. The measurement of television viewing by such complex and diverse audiences is becoming increasingly challenging and Nielsen has been developing technologies to meet that challenge. The Local People Meter is a step in that direction.

However, technology is adding to the complexity. Advances in technologies like digital video recorders, Tivo, and others allow the audience not only to determine when they view a show, but also to fast-forward right through the commercials that pay for the shows. This is of critical concern to advertisers who pay enormous sums for their ads. I learned that we will soon be seeing people selected to wear cell-phone-like devices called the Portable People Meter that will not only capture the shows and their accompanying ads that they see at home, but wherever they happen to see television, whether at a bar, a friend's home or on the street. Yet to come are devices that not only will capture the shows seen but the purchases that individual makes by registering the bar-code information of the product bought. Further, these devices will also record the time it took for an individual to make a purchase after they first saw the ad. I don't think Star Trek ever explored this frontier or the boundaries of privacy that technology approaches. What a fascinating Star Trek script that would make!

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