Diaries and youth an unreliable combo

Sep 23, 2002  •  Post A Comment

It’s 10 o’clock, do you know where your younger viewers are tuning?
Whether it’s 8 o’clock, 6 o’clock or 3 o’clock, the question applies, because younger viewers have proved repeatedly that when it comes to doing much more than flopping onto the sofa in front of the TV, they are slouch potatoes.
They are notoriously difficult to quantify because as a group they tend to be reluctant to enlist in the audience measurement process and once in, seem inclined to forget, disregard or shun even the least taxing tasks associated with recording their viewing choices.
Short of rewiring their brains, what is a TV researcher, an executive or an advertiser in search of accurate reflections of viewing patterns to do?
That question is particularly frustrating in the 155 TV markets in which Nielsen Media Research collects data by paper diary only. Those markets-representing upward of 30 percent of the U.S. TV universe and several billions of dollars in advertiser revenues-are difficult to buy or sell with pinpoint accuracy, since diaries have tended to underreport younger-demographic and some ethnic groups, most notably African American and Hispanic viewers.
The question is one that particularly concerns John Tupper, president of Prime Cities Broadcasting, which operates KNDX-TV and KXND-TV in the Bismarck-Minot, N.D., market, ranked 152nd in the country.
Mr. Tupper became head of the Fox affiliate board this year, but since 2000, the year he stopped subscribing to Nielsen
because of his complaints about the diary, which is the only measurement of viewing in his market, he has been pushing the exchange of frustrations and information among a group of some 60 stations known as the Fox Small Market Affiliates Council.
Although Mr. Tupper finds much empathy among the broadcasters who target younger and otherwise elusive audiences, Fox Broadcasting, The WB and UPN declined to comment for this story.
Mr. Tupper contends that three main issues cause inaccuracies in Nielsen’s diary reports: low cooperation rates, under-representation of younger viewers and response bias produced by a number of factors, including inaccurate recall, diary-keeper fatigue and the impact of branding.
When Mr. Tupper addresses some weaknesses related to the diary, he has plenty of company, even including, on some points, Nielsen, which has tried everything from redesigned diaries and increased follow-up and financial incentives to priority-mail delivery, oversampling and weighting in under-reported categories.
“Everything he says about the difficulty about getting younger demographics to participate in sample research being a real problem is probably correct,” said Nielsen spokesman Jack Loftus. “Despite all our work to date, it is still a bear to get young people to accept and fill out a diary.”
Mr. Tupper and Nielsen can turn testy on the subject of each other.
Nielsen’s Mr. Loftus, noting that Mr. Tupper is not a client, said, “He has no right to be looking at any Nielsen data.”
Mr. Tupper charged that Nielsen would rather see markets switch from diary to meters-an upgrade that would require a substantial increase in fees paid by stations-than correct diary problems. “Nielsen’s attempts to improve its system have been sort of like putting spark plugs in an Edsel,” he said.
George Ivie is executive director of the Media Rating Council, which sets standards for and audits media measurement. It also certifies which organizations are in compliance with the standards. He has had a number of conversations with Mr. Tupper since the Fox Small Market Affiliates Council was formed and said the diary issue is among subjects he raised in a recent letter to Nielsen.
Mr. Ivie agrees “there are consistent movements,” including an increase in younger-demo viewing levels, when markets make the transition from diary-only to metered. He said that with some study, it is “relatively easy” to prove whether the phenomenon is true.
The harder question, Mr. Ivie said, is how to adjust accurately for discrepancies between meter and diary estimates.
Adjustment is what most interests Mr. Tupper, who believes “response bias” is the chief culprit for the discrepancies that most concern his Fox affiliate counterparts, because they do target the elusive younger viewers.
In a recent letter to Mr. Ivie, Mr. Tupper said that until Nielsen might be able to deploy low-cost meters, the Fox Small Market group seeks an “interim strategy” that includes testing on more user-friendly diaries, increased incentives, and using “response bias factors … to index results to improve accuracy.”
Data modeling nonstarter
The latter, which presumably would involve the application of data from a metered market to a formula that would adjust data from a diary-only market, is where Mr. Tupper begins losing company.
“John wants Nielsen to model for this,” said Ann Franco, whose Franco Research Group was hired last year to help the Fox Small Market group better understand diary research issues. “Nielsen is flatly against that.”
Mr. Ivie said he is with Nielsen on this.
“Data modeling is a nonstarter. It is not going to happen,” said Mr. Loftus. “Other than Tupper, I don’t know anyone who has seriously suggested it.”
However, Nielsen does plan to run a test this 2002-03 season in a metered market of a tuning-only diary that just asks people to note whether the TV is on and which channel it is tuned to.
There also has been talk, said Ms. Franco, of testing next year of a short-duration diary, that might cover one to three days rather than a full week and presumably could ameliorate problems caused by viewer fatigue.
On Thursday, when the Nielsen Customer Alliance meets, diary improvements are among the subjects scheduled for discussion.