In Depth

Adalian Column: Nielsen Failure Foretold by Disco-Era Tactics

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The diary itself featured yet another outdated illustration of a TV set from 30 years ago.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.