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Nielsen Unveils Updated Diaries

May 9, 2005  •  Post A Comment

Making their debut this sweeps ratings period: new Nielsen Media Research diaries.

The new books represent some four years and $4 million of research and development and more than $30 million to execute the improvements and updates of the paper journals. Nielsen hopes members of about 350,000 TV homes will log their TV viewing in the revamped diaries during this big programming month.

The new diaries are intended to improve the rate of cooperation and the quality of information Nielsen receives from viewers-and to give a clearer picture of U.S. television viewing. Diaries provide demographic data about viewers that otherwise would not be collected in 205 markets that do not have Local People Meter service yet or that may be too small ever to afford metered measurement.

In mid-April the first of the new diaries-about 87,500 per batch, a week apart-were mailed to homes that had, for the most part, agreed to participate. Nielsen, which contacts thousands of people listed in public databases via phone to recruit participants, doesn’t easily take “no” for an answer unless the potential recruit says “no” with some hostility. Nielsen also mails some diaries to homes that had not been previously contacted.

The diaries are important to the television industry because they help fill in informational holes. For example, they are relied upon for demographic figures in large markets where Local People Meters are not yet deployed, in the midsize markets where a combination of People Meters and diaries still is used, and in the many smaller markets that are unlikely ever to be able to justify economically the deployment of meters.

In addition to the changes in the diaries themselves, Nielsen is sending out more diaries in an attempt to raise the number of responses, which has dipped so low in some diary-only markets that Nielsen promised to improve the situation by, among other things, raising the mailing minimum to black, Hispanic and under-35 households starting this sweeps, according to former academic Dr. Paul Lavrakas, VP of methodological research for Nielsen.

If the number of diaries returned from the first mailings is lower than Nielsen would like, the research company will increase the number mailed for the last two rounds of May sweeps.

Nielsen employs some specific strategies to make its approach to prospective respondents as efficient as possible. For example, Nielsen’s research suggests that “priority” mail is treated more respectfully by some people, so diaries are mailed in large envelopes marked “priority” to black, Hispanic and under-35 homes-at a cost of $2 per envelope.

Incentives, known as “noncontingent thank-you gifts,” meant to encourage accurate participation have been increased; the range is from $2 to $15. The money is the first thing most respondents see when they open their mailers from Nielsen, which assumes that most people are holding the envelope with the address facing them when they open their mail.

Research says 10 $1 bills have a better effect on respondents than one $10 bill. The exception: “A $2 bill works better than two $1 bills,” Mr. Lavrakas said.

The research executive said the bills Nielsen sends are “always crisp new ones or close to it. We’re a major consumer of banks.”

As for the diary itself, it has been enlarged from the old 7-inch-by-5-inch size to 73/4 by 53/4 to make it easier to digest and to fill in.

The questionnaire that requests information about the home and inhabitants has been made easier to read and moved to the front of the diary.

The diaries are published in English and in editions written in both Spanish and English. They are provided in Thursday-to-Thursday versions for the growing number of people who have digital video recorders, which make time-shifting of programming easier and more frequent, and in Thursday-to-Wednesday versions for the still-dominant non-DVR population.

The DVR-inclusive diaries cover eight days rather than the seven-day week covered in the non-DVR diaries because DVR users may not watch a recorded episode of a series until just before the next episode is telecast. The non-DVR diaries have a page at the back for listing programs that were recorded while the respondents were watching something else. The DVR diaries specify that the comparable page at the back should list only programs on VCRs, because DVR use is to be logged on the daily pages at the relevant times.

Each version of the diary now includes a column on each daily page to accommodate notation of times when the TV is on but is not being watched or listened to.

Other changes include the enlargement of the die-cut notches that expose the upper-right-corner columns in which individual household members (and their ages and gender) are identified to ensure that the names of all people who might be watching TV are visible no matter what calendar day the diary is open to.

The new diary costs twice as much to print as the previous version, Mr. Lavrakas said.

The diary is produced by a primary printer in Chicago and subcontractors in Chicago and Indianapolis and shipped to Nielsen’s mailing controls building in the Tampa Bay, Fla., area, where the diary and incentives are inserted by $2 million machines, assembly-line style, into the appropriate envelopes and mailed.

The diaries include a back page that converts to a return-mailing flap, meaning no envelope is required. When they are received at Nielsen’s Venice, Fla., editing facility the diary pages are scanned to input the data into a system that includes 400 editing stations with large screens at which people will check the scanned data.

“The human brain ultimately is the best computer,” Mr. Lavrakas said.