Tuesday, August 2, 2011

The Nielsen Ratings

Several weeks ago, I got a phone call. It was a recorded message rather than a live person, informing me that I would soon be asked to participate in a Nielsen ratings survey and it was very important that I participate. I found this approach very irritating--if it's so important, maybe you just call me--and had pretty much decided to refuse.

This is a far cry from my feelings about the Nielsen ratings as a child. As I understood it then, the Nielsen ratings people picked some very lucky families and put some kind of box on their television and these Nielsen families represented the American viewing public as a whole. How we wished to be designated that special family, where our favorite shows would be counted! Cynicism has taken its toll over the years and I don't believe that my lone opinion counts to any degree whatsoever, at least not in the keeping and cancelling of TV shows. And the using of my personal views in a kind of grand data base feels more invasive than special at this late stage too.

So I was all set to say no and face down their incredulity, but the Nielsen people outsmarted me. I was phoned in due course by an exceedingly nice woman who did not come across in an aggressive way at all. I thought, what the hell, and agreed to receive the 'Nielsen diary' in a couple of weeks. And to answer a few questions.

There were more questions when the 'diary' arrived. Of course there were. One of them was how many televisions you had in your house--and how many of them were actually functional. I am not sure what fascinating social analysis this question leads to, but I found it funny that they had nailed me, because I have two, and only one is functional. (It's complicated). Another thing that I found strange, but interesting, was that you were supposed to record when the TV was on but no one was watching. I found this a harder question than I thought it would be, as there were certain times during the week when I wasn't sure if the person in the house (me) was actually 'watching' or just kind of hanging out in the general vicinity of the television set without any real way to tell how much I was actually taking in.

There was also a question about how many channels I currently had. This was the one that caused me some trouble. I really have no idea. I have a standard Comcast contract where I get everything available through channel 100, but that's nothing like a hundred channels. Besides, there are random channels that come in well above that. I have never counted, nor did I have any intention of doing that for the Nielsen ratings. They suggested that I just print out a copy of the channels I receive, but I never got anything like that, and I started to get really annoyed. I was even more annoyed when someone called me that night to ask if I had received the packet. I think there is this mentality at the Nielsen's that everyone is actually happy to share their viewing patterns rather than thinking it a pain in the neck. The guy suggested sending in that printed thing and when I said I had no intention of counting what channels I had, he didn't just let it go, but asked me if I could get my diary, I said I was not going to get the diary. There was a pause and he said "Oh, so you're not at home?" I said I wasn't. I was absolutely bound and determined that I wasn't going to jump through any more hoops, so I said no, even though it was probably only 10 feet away. He told me not get all upset about it.

Anyway, I did my best with the questions and was ready to start recording my viewing hours. I found the whole process very strange. Clearly they want to fit you into a certain demographic, and I'm sure they got some of that, but actually, as it was summer, and few new network shows are on, my viewing was not particularly typical. And, I was busy that week. I watched less than I would have some other weeks.

In fact, though, the most interesting thing to me was that I felt an incredible urge to both lie and to do the atypical. You get columns for all kinds of people, even visiting strangers, and as someone who writes the occasional piece of fiction, the temptation was strong to fabricate a lively household complete with guests. That would have been wrong, but I also was tempted to watch a bunch of strange shows that week and mess with the findings. That would have been fair I think, but the fact was I didn't have time to do that. I still wish I had.  I didn't even record my strange but occasional obsession with Jewelry Television. I don't wear jewelry, I don't buy it, but occasionally I get absolutely fascinated by these late night descriptions of gems I have never heard of. What can I say? I also like docents. I like people to tell me things. But this wasn't the week for it. 

Anyway, I filled out the booklet faithfully and truthfully, if dully. I thought I might go into the history and use of the Nielsen ratings here, but frankly, it turns out that I'm not all that interested.

P.S. In looking for an image, I found this interesting little piece on how it all works. Reading it, apparently people who are participate are sworn to confidentiality. Oops. I actually don't remember promising anything like that, but if I erred, I'm happy to have my results nullified. I'll even send back the dollar they sent me in compensation--that is, if they send me the  postage.


  1. Yes, fortunately, I think the Nielsen folks are too busy keeping on close phone communication with people to read their blogs.

    Let's hope so, anyway, as I really don't want anymore follow up calls.

  2. Sworn to confidentiality, you say? Is this creepier than it really ought to be?

  3. I don't know if it's creepy so much as a bit retro, the overall feeling I had throughout the experience.

    I'm thinking the confidentiality thing was probably for the people with the boxes attached to their TV sets. I can't imagine who would say oh, you're going to attach a box to my television set and I can't say a word about it and I am just really so super cool with that now.

    It's got to be an anomalous subset now.

  4. I was contacted by Nielsen and refused to participate. Then they mailed me a notice that my packet was on the way and to start using it on a certain day. I ignored many phone calls from them. Never once did I ever agree to participate in this. The packet arrived, I removed the 5 one dollar bills, and threw the packet in the trash. I consider what I watch on TV or not watch to be my business and not theirs (and I don't watch much tv). Why do they think they can force me to do this? Because of their process I would consider any ratings derived from this process to be very suspect.

    1. Good for you, anonymous. I think at this point I am much less willing to answer any kind of survey questions than I was when I wrote this.