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Saturday, September 24, 2005

The Nielsen Ratings: Just Who, Exactly, Participates?

Neilsen2_1Ann Althouse is upset -- a favorite TV show of hers has been cancelled.  One new fall TV show was just cancelled after just two episodes.  It is highly likely that the Nielsen ratings played a role in these tragic events.  The decisions about what entertainment we watch on TV are driven by the Nielsen ratings.  I have always wondered about the accuracy of the Nielsen ratings.  Many of the Nielsen information gathering techniques seem quite cumbersome, and I assume that the compensation for people’s efforts can’t be all that great.  From the Nielsen website:

What techniques do you use to collect viewing information?

Nielsen Media Research uses People Meters, set-tuning meters, paper diaries, and telephone interviews (called telephone coincidentals).

People Meter

The People Meter is an electronic metering system placed in randomly selected households – 5,000 households for nationwide audience measurement. The meter measures three things – the tuning station of the TV set (on, off, time), what channel/station is being tuned, and who is watching. The People Meter is used to produce household and persons audience estimates for broadcast and cable networks and nationally distributed barter-syndicated programs.

Who is watching television is measured by the "People" part of the meter. A fixed box is placed on or near the television, and each member of the household is assigned a personal viewing button (often, a remote clicker is also personalized). These personal buttons, allow Nielsen Media Research to determine "who" is watching which program.

Set-Tuning Meter

In 49 of the nation’s largest markets, an electronic metering system is used by Nielsen Media Research to provide set-tuning information on a daily basis. The TV-set-tuning information is collected from a sample of homes in these 49 markets (separate than the People Meter), and overnight household tuning ratings are reported on a daily basis for these local areas. This meter is placed onto the back of each television set in the home and monitors the tuning status of each TV set in the household.


Diary measurement is used to collect viewing information from sample homes in every television market in the United States. Each year we process approximately 1.6 million paper diaries from households across the country for the "sweeps" ratings periods. The standard report months – the "sweep" months – include November, February, May and July of each year.

The paper-viewing diaries are mailed out to randomly selected households in all 210 local markets in the U.S. Each household’s member in the diary sample is asked to write down what programs and channels they watch over the course of that one week.

So families must agree to have their TV watching monitored 24-7 (or to keep extensive diaries about it) and cannot tell anybody about this (Nielsen requires that those it monitors keep the fact confidential) -- all for a small amount of money.  Why would anybody want to do this?  Are the type of people who choose to do this really representative of the TV-watching population as a whole? 

Posted by Daniel Solove on September 24, 2005 at 07:15 PM in Culture, Daniel Solove, Information and Technology | Permalink


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I would like to know, how would you go about getting evolved in the neilson ratings, I have a friend that does this, and it would be good for my mom, since this is the only thing that she does all day is watch TV. It would be nice if she could make some extra cash, just for watching tv. Please let me know, what it is that I need to do.

Rovenia Cox

Posted by: rovenia cox | May 30, 2008 12:11:37 PM

The 10 tons of nuts sent by Jericho fans to CBS this past week and a half show that The Nielsen's are flawed....

find out more about the fight to Save Jericho at http://wwww.jericholives.com

Posted by: Mark | May 26, 2007 3:41:19 AM

They do monitor Tivo. See, e.g., here. http://www.pvrwire.com/2005/09/22/lost-moves-up-in-most-recorded-list/

You wonder whether the Tivo-owning crowd is representative.

If you compare the Tivo results to the Nielson results

you find that they don't exactly reflect the same viewing habits. Who can say which is more reliable? (Also note that the ratings matter most for ad revenues. Anyone using Tivo isn't watching the ads.)

Posted by: Hillel Levin | Sep 26, 2005 11:40:26 AM

I'd be curious if anyone attempts to consciously shape TV choices with their Nielsen Power...

Posted by: Paul Gowder | Sep 25, 2005 3:31:39 PM

I got $5 for filling out the diary about a year ago. I was as honest as I could be, not so much because of the compensation, which I actually though was fair for the low amount of work required, but just because I knew that my answers actually "mattered."

Why would I want to do this? It's really not that bad: unless you watch 24 hours of TV you don't have to fill out 24 hours of diary - you just draw a line down the page for the times that you're not watching. I felt somewhat "honored" to be a Neilsen household: I knew that my answers would actually have an impact on programming, not to mention people's careers, so I faithfully recorded the programs that I really enjoyed.

Am I representative of the TV-watching population as a whole? I have no idea what that means. Are you suggesting there's such a thing as an "average viewer?" If so, I'm probably not such a person: I'm a unique individual with highly idiosyncratic tastes. I suspect each Neilsen household thinks they are equally special and unique. Perhaps we are all wrong about that.

Posted by: Dresden Slammer | Sep 25, 2005 3:01:04 AM

We had some friends that were a Nielsen family, with the box on their tv. They did tell us (in hushed tones), because they had to tell someone. They seemed very honored to be a Nielsen family. The system seemed flawed because the box could only count one channel at one time, so if you watched one show and taped another, it only counted one. In the age of Tivo, that seemed silly. Monitoring what shows gets Tivo'ed seems like a better strategy.

Posted by: Christine | Sep 24, 2005 10:01:28 PM

We were recently a paper diary family, and paid to fill it out. I tend to think that they would discard our results as a statistical anomaly, on the grounds that both my wife and I regard reality television with an feeling somewhere betwixt scorn and outright contempt, and I watch a lot of C-SPAN and PBS.

(Yes, even some Republicans watch PBS. I listen to NPR, too).

Posted by: Simon | Sep 24, 2005 8:41:06 PM

Many many years ago my family was sent one of the paper diaries. I don't know if we were offered money or not (I wasn't offered any of it, anway!) but I know we did not in fact keep the diary or send it in. It was just too much of a pain, especially if, like me at the time, you tended to flip between the baseball games, sports center, and the news as the comercials came on. What inference from this you can draw is probably unclear, but it did lead me to suspect that the reporting is probably pretty selective.

Posted by: Matt | Sep 24, 2005 8:34:41 PM

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