I Was a Nielsen Family... and Boy, Was I Sorry!

Cary O'Dell

The "magic" behind those "numbers" that determine what stays and what goes on TV.

A few years ago I had the chance to be a Nielsen “family” (though I live alone) and catalog, for all posterity, a detailed record of my TV viewing habits. Eventually—I assumed— this raw data would be processed and reported to the masses, with my viewing choices powerfully impacting the national viewing audience. Tough work, but someone’s got to do it.

Though you can apply to the Nielsen company to be “sampled”, I did not. A letter just arrived out of the blue one day in my mailbox. It asked me if I would participate in their TV watching/ratings survey for a one-week period. I said yes—why not?--and returned the enclosed, pre-paid postcard. I guess this is the anachronistic norm for Nielsen: just recruit through the mail, keep it as low-tech as possible.

So, sadly, after I signed up, I did not get a fancy PeopleMeter to sit upon my TV and record my viewing selections automatically. Instead, I got an old-fashioned—but I presume still reliable—"diary", a sort of old Bluebook-looking booklet with pre-lined pages held together with staples. Again, quaint. This is how I was to record my watching for the next seven days. Along with a page for each day of the week, there were also a few blank pages at the back to list the programs I "time-shifted”, i.e., taped or DVR-ed for watching later.

Though Nielsen never promised me money or anything else in exchange for my participation, the day I got my diary, I found enclosed in the envelope five incredibly crisp $1 bills. This, I assumed, was considered incentive enough by the company to get me and everyone else to follow through on what we promised.

Being a Nielsen family shouldn’t come with too much pressure—I mean, it’s just TV--but it does, nonetheless. Suddenly you feel the weight of the world on your shoulders; you are much more self-aware of what you watch. TV used as background, TV viewed mindlessly, is no longer an option. You have to be involved, aware enough now to at least somewhat remember what you are “watching”.

As a Nielsen family, you can also easily become drunk with power. I wondered how many shows and livelihoods rested on my answers, my every viewing minute. Being familiar enough with the Nielsen ratings system (I majored in radio and TV in college,) I knew how important these ratings meant to the TV industry. No, this is not a responsibility to take lightly! And, frankly, when Lipstick Jungle was cancelled, I blamed myself.

The hardest part of keeping the diary was not remembering what I watched or what I remembered watching, but determining just how honest I was going to be. Did I really want to reveal that much of myself even to these Nielsen strangers? Was I really going to admit to watching the six-hour Dog the Bounty Hunter marathon on A&E last Saturday? Was I going to disclose the fact that every night before going to bed I watched Crossing Over with John Edward on the Sci-Fi Network? Do I admit that sometimes, yes, I do get sucked into infomercials? (Remember Nads, that gooey and poorly named Australian hair removal product that came in a jar? Wasn’t that, like, oddly and hypnotically compelling?!)

Feeling brave, I ultimately decided I just had to be 100 percent candid. I swallowed my pride and tried not to think about what my TV habits said about me, I just did it, reputation be damned.

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Actually, the sense of duty and the pressure to be accurate and true is not completely misplaced considering Nielsen’s odd methodology and skimpy sample size. In the end, every rating point and every answered survey does matter in the millions--of dollars, if not actual viewers.

The Nielsen Company, headquartered in the Chicago suburb of Schaumburg, Illinois likes to keeps its sampling stats secret. (My inquiries to the company for this article went unanswered.) And, as a privately held company, that is certainly their right. They are no more obligated to share their methodology than KFC has to reveal its secret mixture 11 herbs and spices. Still, enough journalistically sound investigations have been done to arrive at an estimate that the number of people sampled for the weekly TV ratings to be around 37,000.

But this number then begs a question: how can TV ratings by Nielsen be reported every week in terms of millions of viewers if less than 40,000 people are actually being counted? Well, in some ways, we’ve all been lied to.

To achieve its numbers—which eventually get accepted as the gospel by the broadcast and cable networks--Nielsen relies on a mathematically accepted system called “statistical sampling”. It extrapolates--some could say exaggerates--its core findings. It assumes—as do almost all surveys in every field—that for every person watching a show, that person represents “X” number of others. Nielsen takes its original numbers, does the math and then reports the final, calculated sum. In many ways, what Nielsen reports in the ends is, basically, a mathematical theory, an estimate, an educated guess.

The across-the-board adopting of Nielsen’s numbers is interesting considering the stunning paucity of its sample size. While 37,000 is a lot of people, especially if you had to sit and count and process their viewing habits every day of the week, it’s still a group of people smaller than the population of, say, Peoria, Illinois, or Broken Arrow, Oklahoma. In fact, it’s smaller than the entire population of American Samoa. In fact, it’s smaller than the number of people than can be fit into Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, Tennessee, or the number that can be seated at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, Texas. And it is only 10,000 more than can be seated inside Madison Square Garden.

What this means, then, is that a group of people, smaller in number than the town I grew up in (Galesburg, Illinois), in fact, smaller than most towns most people grew up in, ultimately decides what is watched by a nation of 313 million. Behold the power of (sort of) math!

Considering the “supermajority” status that every Nielsen “family” carries with it for the duration of the time they are surveyed , I do have to wonder what profound impact I had on the worlds of television during my tenure. Of course, both Dog the Bounty Hunter and Crossing Over are gone now, so maybe that tells me something. But at least I can say that I’m not the one that killed them.

Of course, the critically acclaimed Arrested Development (a show I could never cotton to) is gone now and 30 Rock never made it to the top ten. And, for that, I guess I would like to sincerely apologize now.





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