New TV Ratings System: Who Will Watch the Watchers?

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.