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Networks Question Nielsen’s Explanation

Dec 1, 2003  •  Post A Comment

After digesting the 43-page white paper in which Nielsen Media Research said about 40 percent of this season’s drop in young male viewers can be attributed to Nielsen’s “methodological improvements,” NBC research chief Alan Wurtzel declared: “I am in violent agreement.”
Mr. Wurtzel’s has been the loudest voice in the discussion of whether 18- to 34-year-old men are suddenly losing interest in TV, or whether their sudden absence is a problem created when Nielsen this year attempted to address client requests for a national People Meter sample more reflective of the demographic makeup of the country.
Last week, Mr. Wurtzel said he read four times Nielsen’s detailed summary of statistics and analyses of everything from button-pushing fatigue to the number and length of “tuning events” down to the day of the week. He said, with no shortage of frustration, that while he still finds some aspects of the white paper incomprehensible, it seems clear, “They agree with us. It’s all about the sample. It’s about the young men in the sample.”
“What happened is because of unintended consequences,” Mr. Wurtzel said. “When you don’t feather in people smoothly you get these unexpected jolts.”
David Poltrack, Mr. Wurtzel’s counterpart at Viacom-owned CBS and UPN, said he also found the white paper challenging reading, to say the least. But he was more sanguine in his criticisms of Nielsen’s presentation on the subject of the 7.7 percent season-to-season prime-time decline in men 18 to 34-which adds up to 41/2 minutes per night less viewing in the demo-and Nielsen’s explanation for it. Mr. Poltrack said he thinks a combination of demographic changes (as men graduate from the 18 to 34 demo, the median age gets lower and the demo skews more toward the viewers least prone to watch TV), lifestyle changes and out-of-home viewing can account for most of the missing men.
Pilot Program
CBS and Viacom’s MTV networks, The WB and Turner Broadcasting’s cable networks, and Fox Broadcasting are footing the bill for a Nielsen Media Research pilot program on extended home measurement greenlighted last spring to measure viewing by college students and all in vacation homes. The secondary homes have been recruited from within the 5,100-household National People Meter sample. Installation of meter equipment has begun and Nielsen expects to be able to begin reporting data early in 2004 to the pilot program’s sponsors.
The test is expected to help determine the feasibility of addressing aspects of a long-running complaint of Nielsen clients: that when people leave their primary homes, whether for the office, a business trip, a vacation or college, the statistical effect is that they simply stop watching TV, when they actually are watching away from home. Including at least some out-of-home viewing in the National People Meter sample would make the daily snapshot more accurate, especially among younger viewers.
But Mr. Poltrack, Mr. Wurtzel and Brad Turell, spokesman for The WB, one of the chief instigators of the extended home test, caution that the pilot program would not find this season’s so-called lost boys suddenly missing from Nielsen’s count. Instead, it would be finding the viewers who have, by going away to college, never been counted.
“Everybody does some out-of-home viewing. I think young men do more,” said Mr. Poltrack, who in the coming months expects to focus on the extended home study and his own research into the apparent decline in young men’s appetite for TV. “The bottom line on this is that Nielsen is not in any position right now to actually state that there is any real decline. They do not measure the totality of viewing.”
The feeling at The WB, which has been puzzled by apparent national declines in young women as well as young men this season, was that until Nielsen issues a definitive public statement conceding it has trouble measuring young viewers, it isn’t being honest about its performance.
But Paul Donato, Nielsen Media Research senior VP and chief research officer, said that what Nielsen showed is that the sample changes are “almost all improvements” and “all the evidence suggests people are using the system properly.”