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Adalian Column: Nielsen Failure Foretold by Disco-Era Tactics

May 8, 2009  •  Post A Comment

The Great Nielsen Meltdown of 2009 should come as no surprise to anyone who’s ever seen one of the company’s paper diaries.
Until about a week ago, I actually had no clue just how the ratings giant collected data from consumers. Nielsen loves to shroud just about everything it does in secrecy, no doubt because it knows how broken its system is.
But then my mom called to let me know Nielsen had sent her a diary, along with five one-dollar bills. She was not happy.
“It’s so stupid,” Mama Adalian said. “I watch everything on my DVR. I don’t know where to write anything down. And who has time to remember to write everything down anyway?”
I was just excited that fate had intervened to finally allow me to see what an actual Nielsen diary looks like. I’d been writing about the ratings for years, but had never been given a glimpse into how the sausage was made.
I immediately went over to her house to check out Nielsen’s handiwork. Despite years of networks carping to me about the antiquated nature of the ratings system, I was unprepared for what I saw.
The diary Nielsen sent my mom, along with a few pages of accompanying directions, seemed like it had arrived via time warp.
Underneath a cutesy TV set logo that appeared to have been designed by a high school art student during the Ford administration, Nielsen proudly bragged to my mom, “We’ve produced the TV ratings for over 50 years!”
A letter attached insisted that helping Nielsen would be painless.
“Keeping your diary is very easy,” Nielsen told my mom. “When your TV is on, please enter programs as you watch them. … This will only take a few minutes a day.”
The diary itself featured yet another outdated illustration of a TV set from 30 years ago. Inside, Nielsen’s expectations were equally retro.
One of the first pages of the diary asked my mom to list every single channel she’s able to get on her TV.
Really.
In an era in which the average TV consumer has access to more than 100 channels, Nielsen expected my mom to write down the countless channels she subscribes to through DirecTV, along with the channel number and the city from which the station originates.
A diary system designed in the 2000s would have allowed my mother to simply note that she was a DirecTV subscriber, or that she was a customer of the local cable company. Nielsen could have used that information to figure out just what channels Mom could watch.
But because Nielsen is still stuck in the disco era, its diary pretended Mom pulls in her programs using rabbit ears.
As I thumbed deeper through the diary, I got to the part where my mother was supposed to write down the shows she watched. The grids seemed simple enough, though the space allotted for filling in titles required the user to write very small.
And then it hit me: Nowhere in the diary was there any mention of how to tally programs watched using a digital video recorder. In Nielsen’s diary-based world, TiVo apparently has not yet been invented.
Nielsen did provide my mom 10 lines in the back of the diary to write down shows she recorded using her VCR (or videocassette recorder, as the company called it).
In an age in which more than 30% of TV homes have DVRs, Nielsen apparently hasn’t figured out how to use its diaries to tally time-shifted viewing.
Now, in fairness, paper diaries aren’t nearly as important to Nielsen numbers as they used to be. Electronic people meters now provide a big chunk of the data used to determine ratings. And that technology has no problem capturing DVR usage.
Nonetheless, it’s pretty shocking that Nielsen is still spending millions—some of it one crisp dollar bill at a time—on a diary system that has no connection to modern TV viewing.
I looked back at the cover letter Nielsen had sent my mom, hoping there might be some nod to DVRs. There wasn’t. But I did notice the letter was signed by Susan Whiting, vice chair of the Nielsen Co.
The letter identified Ms. Whiting as the president of Nielsen.
Given how behind the times Nielsen is in its diaries, I certainly wouldn’t expect it to get the title of its own leader right.

160 Comments

  1. That’s nothing –
    You should try visiting and seeing the filled in diaries for yourself. Stations can send reps to check and look for errors. They have the 2 out of 3 method – so if you say you watched Survivor, on ABC, channel 7, the credit will go to the ABC affiliate. They can be filled in with crayons, etc… just a mess… and a joke. And who would fill out that they watch Jerry Springer?

  2. Totally agree with the outdated comments. I just don’t get why somebody else doesn’t want to come in and do it better. Plus…aren’t they a monopoly? Isn’t the government supposed to break up monopolies? Creating competing companies would create jobs plus a better and more accurate service…plus the costs would come down for TV stations that pay way to much currently for information that really isn’t accurate.

  3. And the non-metered markets stations are expected to remain profitable with ratings that are supposedly statistically sound. ?????
    Now Nielsen has decided to mail diaries rather than get telephone confirmation that the viewer will participate (to be sure to include those that only have cell phones, no house phone). The response rates are barely double digit (9-11%). Not only do I question the quality of this sample, I question its validity.

  4. Not to be a Nielsen apologist, they certainly need to improve, but the “great Nielsen meltdown of 2009″ has nothing to do with paper diaries, so the connection is ludicrous. Also the local markets that still have paper diaries for sweeps couldn’t pay for the increase in cost of metered ratings, so while they certainly are antiquated those markets don’t want to/or can’t pay the necessary increases…..and finally the ratings for shows in those markets compared to the ratings in markets with meters are very consistent, which validates all of the methodology. And to answer Mr. Sitcom they aren’t a monopoly because anyone is welcome to come in participate in the business, the problem is that anyone who has tried hasn’t been able to do it any better, get any different results or do it at a lower cost.

  5. Researcher,
    I don’t attribute this week’s woes to paper diaries. I simply made reference to it as another in a long line of Nielsen issues, and as a jumping off point to discuss just how out-of-date parts of the company’s methodology appears to be.

  6. The sad reality is over-the-air broadcasters CANNOT afford Nielsen’s new people meters because (1) of higher costs, and (2) the results show fewer people are watching OTA broadcasters.
    Cable companies & satellite companies don’t need to pay for Nielsen services because (1) they sell ads based on targeting, not broad audience numbers, and (2) they still get monthly cash flow from subscribers regardless of ad sales.
    As Nielsen requires more money from OTA broadcasters, OTA broadcasters will need to make cuts elsewhere (staff, local programming, et al).
    As Nielsen surveying improves, OTA broadcaster’s audiences shrink (meaning less revenues to pay for Nielsen services, staff, local programming, et al). It’s a long-term disaster.
    Cable and satellite boxes could accurately gauge audience measures through random sampling. But there are privacy and monopoly concerns (and many people ar all ready suspicious about that “box” in their house).

  7. Shell, shell, shell, which one covers the hidden seed?
    The hand is faster than the eye…or is it?
    Too many bands, too many sources and nitch programming to the endth degree.
    I discovered in 1970, working at an FM-Album oriented radio station in Cincinnati, that the rating services wouldn’t even list us much less allow that we had any statistical audience reality in the market.
    I knew better.
    One Sunday afternoon around 12:45, I announced once that a then well-known rock band, Grand Funk Railroad, would give a free concert in Eden Park in an hour.
    In less than a half hour over fifteen thousand people appeared and created a log jam of people and cars where five thousand would have been uncontrollable.
    Hell was raised for days in City Hall and elsewhere, but our station was on the map bigger than even we knew it to be.
    Statistic wizards are just that. Sometimes we have to shake things up so that glimpse of reality gets out for all to see.
    Peter Bright

  8. are you sure it wasn’t five $5 bills?

  9. Wow those tactics really do sound pitiful. Even the mom and pop businesses in my small hometown know that in order to survive you have to at least try to keep up with technology.

  10. I wonder how many good shows have been cancelled because of this antiquated system. I just can’t believe the execs put up with this sort of crap.

  11. Peter, a simular event happened in Atlanta a couple of years ago. A Radio Station there announced they were giving Free Admission to the Six Flags Theme Park there, that morning Traffic in the vicinity of the park ground to a halt because of the throngs of people who showed up. People who were caught in the Traffic let their kids out of the car so they could walk to the park, where many of them were refused admission because the park refused to admit Minors who were unaccompanied by their Parents or Guardians. This created even more chaos! It was reported hundreds of people missed their flights that day because they couldn’t get to the airport because of the gridlock generated by this promotional fiasco.

  12. Here’s how you started your article:
    “Until about a week ago, I actually had no clue just how the ratings giant collected data from consumers. Nielsen loves to shroud just about everything it does in secrecy, no doubt because it knows how broken its system is.”
    When I read this, I had to Google your name to see what kind of Broadcast Experinece you had and your qualifications to be writing about the Broad cast industry. What Planet are you from?
    You’ve been writing about TV for what almost 20 years and you don’t know how Nielsen collects TV viewing?
    I guess I should have know better from someone who can’t even spell Joseph correctly.

  13. Comments by Researcher were right on the mark. The issues that Nielsen had last week were related solely to its electronically-measured People Meter sample, not diaries. The story should not have been linked to last week’s meltdown because it is apparent that most readers don’t know which methods Nielsen employs to produce its various ratings data. To many industry professionals, Nielsen’s mix and application of national and local people meters, set-top box meters and diaries is certainly confusing. Diaries are an antiquated, error-prone, inefficient, but necessary evil until passive electronic measurement can be economically applied to smaller broadcast markets.

  14. In a digital world, we just don’t need Nielsen at all. The advertising companies needs Nielsen to keep making money… Advertising is broken. Nielsen is part of the problem… not the solution.

  15. This may come as no surprise, but most broadcast TV affiliates love that diary system, one that has probably kept them overly profitable for maybe 10 or more years too long. They’d all gladly pay even more just to not see a better technology come along, one much more likely to reflect the realities of multi-choice viewing. Whether it becomes an independently monitored cable/satellite box source or the improving reliability of the local meters (Meltdown ’09 notwithstanding), everyone in the business (and now Josef) knows the diary ratings are severely flawed. Google wanted into the TV ad sales biz, but why not the ratings biz? It’ll be a much steadier monthly check. Just ask Arb or Nielsen.

  16. National Cable/Satellite Networks, HDNet and HDNet Movies, use ‘sec by sec’ set top box data from TNS and Rentrak to measure viewing in HiDef Households.

  17. Well there are some informed comments – from the two other researchers. There is NO doubt that diaries just don’t cut it any more for all the reasons pointed out (though the link to the server failure says more about the journalist than Nielsen).
    However, rather than cast aspersions at Nielsen (full disclosure – I used to work for Nielsen in Australia), why not have a crack at the broadcasters in those markets who refuse to use proven methods to produce statistically accurate ratings. These methods include audio matching (to allow DVR measurement), signal injection, cable data and so on. I think it says a lot about the broadcasters who won’t invest in their business, their programming and their viewers.
    And their is a simple reason that Nielsen didn’t use the Direct TV data over at mum’s – it is illegal for Nielsen to ask Direct TV for it, and illegal for Direct TV to provide it.
    And finally, I have found that the measurement in the digital world is FAR worse than the TV samples. Yes, I know, hard to believe. However when you rely on cookies you get extremely BAD audience estimates as people delete cookies. A simple example. Here in Australia with a population of 21.5m people, if you aggregate one month’s data from four of our largest digital publishers we find that there are 45m unique users. Yes, that’s right – more than double the population! Nielsen TV have never had an error margin as large as that! I add that just as a word or caution to those flocking to the ‘measurable’ digital world – be VERY careful of what you actually ARE measuring, because it sure as hell isn’t your audience – you’re measuring a lot of bots, spiders, crawlers, non-unique users …. but it sure does produce a nice big number doesn’t it. I’m not sure if it’s Fool’s Gold or Snake Oil.

  18. Research Rivals Nielsen, comScore, Rentrak, TiVo, TNS Agree To Pool TV Set-Top Data
    http://www.mediapost.com/publications/?fa=Articles.showArticle&art_aid=105217

  19. I, too, was recently selected to be a “Nielsen family” and I promptly put myself up for adoption. Well, actually, after perusing the diaries and realizing what a pain in the ass maintaining them was going to be, I decided my time was worth more than the two dollars Nielsen sent me. I returned the diaries to Nielsen along with a rather sarcastic “are you kidding me” note. I sent all diaries separately and included the dollar bills in only one of them, a fact that I gleefully reported in my aforementioned note.
    The plain truth is that Nielsen is trying to gather a whole lot of data for free, or damn close to it, and as a result it winds up with some very faulty data. There are ways to do good viewership surveys without using an antiquated throwback to the 3-network era. Nielsen clings to the status quo because it is cheap and so far the advertising gang isn’t smart enough to see the ratings for the charade that they are.
    I think the biggest reason Nielsen gets by with this is that everyone pretends that it actually measures television viewership. Of course, it doesn’t but that’s beside the point.

  20. Wouldn’t it be easier just to include a Nielsen box in every television set?
    Granted, there may be privacy issues, but those should be abated if the consumer knows they are purchasing a monitored television set.
    This is probably far too simplistic.

  21. As an FYI, I believe several years ago they tried to modernize the diaries and the new version was met with disdain – it did not “test well”. They returned to the expected, older format.
    That said, it is a horribly antiquated system. However, as already mentioned, it is incredibly expensive to meter a market and this cost must be defrayed by the local stations- many of which are not interested.

  22. In diaries sent out for the March 2009 sweeps, it DOES asks if the television set assigned to the diary is attached to a DVR. It also includes a lined section in the back to write down time-shifted programs.
    While this is a progressive step towards accurately measuring time-shifted viewing, it does not ask who is watching the DVRed program…a significant flaw in the measurement.
    I do agree with Adalian about Nielsen being stuck in the days of Dynasty, but at least there are some hopeful signs of progress.

  23. As a former Nielsen employee, who used to love her job getting homes to participate in the Ratings, I have to say that if the Networks, cable stations and advertising agencies truly knew how the ratings are collected and handled, they would get the largest refund in history.
    We went to the Moon and back; we can connect to the other side of the Planet in matter of seconds, any average sixteen year old geek can control hundreds of PC’s around the world from his room, but we cannot get accurate TV Ratings in the XXI century. What’s wrong with this picture?
    I do not want to question the methodology, but as far as the technology, the home (participants) recruiting process, the (new) company management, the level of investment on R&D and personnel compensation and training, will continue to be a bad joke for a very long time. Has anybody ever seen the equipment needed to ‘meter’ a TV set? A nuke capable of erasing half of the planet is twenty times simpler, smaller and more accurate. Not to mention home-made. I think that Terrence’s idea is pointing in the right direction.
    Nielsen argues that the full implementation of the People Meters in smaller markets would make the service too expensive for local stations. But, where all the cash Nielsen gets goes? Since VNU, the previous Nielsen owner, sold it to four American ‘equity’ firms, the company has only gotten worse. Investment stopped; company perks went away; lay offs skyrocketed; the compensation to field employees went south of the south and most services were outsourced to TATA but, still no improvement at all. However, top execs will tell you that the Ratings are a cash cow.
    Nielsen needs some serious competition, period. Until then, reading the Ratings will continue to be the best source of laughter to me and the best source of tears to many TV industry people, and the average TV viewer will continue to be fooled, week in, week out.

  24. Regarding Nielsen’s market cost argument, a number of years ago, my station offered to pay Nielsen the ENTIRE cost of metering our market. We were about market size 50. We knew our audience was seriously undercounted, particularly in the younger 2-35 demographics
    Nielsen refused the offer, probably because our rightful gains would have resulted in other stations’ loss. So politics plays a role. Stations with older demographics know that they are overcounted by Nielsen because older folks are more dilgent keeping their diaries. Those stations are happy with the antiquated diaries and don’t want to change.

  25. I, too, just saw a diary for the first time in my life last week. On the one hand, it was very exciting. I now have influence and access to both a voting member of the TV Academy AND a keep of a Nielsen diary. It’s almost like accomplishing the biggest goals of your life… if you don’t mind that other people actually did it.
    But in the post-DVR world, it is just a joke. Having seen the format, and how my compatriot filled it out after his first week (BTW, Joss Whedon owes us now…), it has made me think about what I’m doing as I watch the DVR.
    I wondered how I’d have written up my tearing through two “Late, Late Shows w/Ferguson” over breakfast – cold open, monologue, peek at e-mail, like guest… no, delete – and in less than 25 minutes.

  26. Sure is viral around here. Nielsen is watching this site through its employees.
    On another note, 15 years ago or so in Norway I went to visit a friend of mine and they had a box sitting on top of their TV that recorded what they watched. They didn’t have to do anything but watching TV. That was 15 years ago, in Norway.

  27. Wow Matt,
    Do you work for Nielsen or are you just a moron?
    -Jon
    (not spelled John)

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  134. This is getting a bit more subjective, but I much prefer the Zune Marketplace. The interface is colorful, has more flair, and some cool features like ‘Mixview’ that let you quickly see related albums, songs, or other users related to what you’re listening to. Clicking on one of those will center on that item, and another set of “neighbors” will come into view, allowing you to navigate around exploring by similar artists, songs, or users. Speaking of users, the Zune “Social” is also great fun, letting you find others with shared tastes and becoming friends with them. You then can listen to a playlist created based on an amalgamation of what all your friends are listening to, which is also enjoyable. Those concerned with privacy will be relieved to know you can prevent the public from seeing your personal listening habits if you so choose.

  135. The new Zune browser is surprisingly good, but not as good as the iPod’s. It works well, but isn’t as fast as Safari, and has a clunkier interface. If you occasionally plan on using the web browser that’s not an issue, but if you’re planning to browse the web alot from your PMP then the iPod’s larger screen and better browser may be important.

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  147. The Zune concentrates on being a Portable Media Player. Not a web browser. Not a game machine. Maybe in the future it’ll do even better in those areas, but for now it’s a fantastic way to organize and listen to your music and videos, and is without peer in that regard. The iPod’s strengths are its web browsing and apps. If those sound more compelling, perhaps it is your best choice.

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