One company has dominated the field of rating television viewership for so long that the phrase “Nielsen family” has become ubiquitous in the American lexicon. As with any monopoly, the natives have long since grown restless, complaining that the system is fraught with inaccuracies and subject to blatant manipulation by those who know how to pull the levers.
But Nielsen’s unchallenged reign may be coming to an end as a consortium of U.S. media and marketing interests have banded together to develop a new system of measuring America’s viewing habits.
The contentious nature of the ratings numbers game is evident across the board, most visibly in the area of news coverage and political commentary. Political parties and activist groups watch the results eagerly, ready to pounce on any indication that Fox is in the lead or that MSNBC is gathering all the buzz around the water cooler. Both sides tend to shake their heads in disgust when The Daily Show with Jon Stewart seems to consistently be America’s most trusted news source. But if there’s one thing they all seem to agree on, it’s that Nielsen is the devil incarnate.
Many of the gripes regarding Nielsen’s numbers certainly seem valid. Audience metrics are gathered from a vanishingly small sample which either undercounts or completely disregards critical segments of the population. As one 2007 analysis found, Nielsen took no data at all on college students living away from home until just recently. This eliminated a large swath of the key 18–24 demographic highly prized by many advertisers. While not entirely ignored today, the company still only collects data on roughly 135 college students, making their results in that age bracket suspect at best.
Minorities are also regularly overrepresented, while families living in rural, economically disadvantaged areas are not counted on an equal footing where cable and DSL options are still limited. (Though, to be fair, they have recently begun working to address the latter concern.) Because of these factors, wealthier, urban (and largely liberal) audiences receive disproportionate attention in the numbers and advertisers are left to either cater to that crowd or make risky guesses in the dark.
The method of actual data collection has also long been viewed with justifiable skepticism. While Nielsen has roughly 25,000 electronic set-top units plugged into cable boxes which deliver overnight and weekly numbers, the four critical sweeps period ratings are still taken from paper diaries filled out by volunteers. Relying on the honesty of such reporters doesn’t instill a great deal of confidence. How many couch potatoes will choose to claim they were watching that intriguing documentary on ancient Mayan irrigation techniques or the president’s tenth prime-time presser of the month rather than admit they were sitting through a six-hour marathon of America’s Next Top Model?
A parallel phenomenon has traditionally been seen in radio ratings, which still rely almost entirely on phone interviews for their data. NPR consistently shows an unaccountably high listener base, commanding an impressive share of the market. Critics have long suspected that the people answering those phones would like to sound far more erudite than they actually are and remain ashamed to admit that they were really listening to Howard Stern.
In 2004 Nielsen moved to put a new generation of “People Meters” into the field, but immediately backed off from the project under a hailstorm of complaints. Critics who had previously complained of the inaccuracy of the current system amazingly yelled even louder when People Meter test markets suddenly showed a sharp decline in viewership for top rated African-American and Spanish-language shows. This data seemed to be of more interest to politicians than advertisers and may have proved useful, but Nielsen quickly benched the plan, citing “growing evidence that the methodology may be flawed.”
If this new ratings consortium charges on to the scene with plans to gather more accurate numbers, a different set of concerns will immediately arise. One area under scrutiny is the potential for unauthorized recording of viewing choices directly from your cable box. The technology already exists or could quickly be deployed, as cable companies will currently offer to remotely “reset” your cable box if problems crop up, needing nothing more than confirmation of your phone number, name, and address. Should the potential for such tracking alarm viewers?
The cable companies may justifiably claim that the data passing through the box is already their property. After all, cable subscribers do not generally purchase the equipment, but either rent it or use it for free as part of their service package. From a strict business perspective, the company seems to have a strong claim. Not only do advertisers — from whom the bulk of all revenue flows — rely on such data for their purchases, but the cable operators themselves can use viewer selections to determine which channels to offer in an already crowded media market.
The trouble, of course, is that Americans tend to stiffen their backs at the idea of anyone monitoring their personal activities for any reason. I’m sure most of us recall the furor over portions of the U.S. Patriot Act and the possibility that the government could snoop around in your library book borrowing activity. The UK government has been accused of Orwellian tactics for planning to monitor which websites their citizens visit. Similar concerns were raised over video store rentals, and even the amazingly popular Netflix has had to wrestle with questions over how to store user activity records and whether or not that information would be shared with customers, the government, or motion picture studios wishing to track the popularity of their offerings.
But Americans are faced with a different situation when it comes to consumer tracking by legitimate business interests. We are clearly protected from overreach by the federal government in matters of intrusion regarding our homes and our papers, but to what lengths must business go in ensuring our privacy? Can they peek into our homes, provided such “snooping” is limited to equipment they own and service?
These are questions likely to be fought out for years to come not only in courts of law, but on the media business battlefield. But even as the debate rages, the industry appears to remain perpetually riding well behind the curve. As they fight over the scraps of live broadcast TV viewers, the numbers become increasingly skewed by the new media. Websites such as Hulu, The Pirate Bay, and even YouTube are turning ratings data into mush. Tivo users who view their recorded selections more than 24 hours after the original air date are not counted anywhere.
One fact remains certain: everyone wants to know what you’re watching. Your task is to figure out who will be watching the watchers and how scrupulous they will be with their findings.