April 26, 2007

Nielsen Ratings: An Inaccurate Truth

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Television epitomizes all that is undemocratic when it comes to assessing opinions. Its method of ratings measurement makes the 2000 election fiasco seem fair and just; most citizens over the age of 18 still had the opportunity to cast their ballot regardless of whether or not their opinions were ultimately disregarded due to faulty voting methods. In the television world, however, public opinion is not so inclusive in its tabulations, ignoring large segments of the population in favor of simplicity.
Since its inception in the early ’60s, Nielsen ratings data has overlooked college students living away from home. Ignoring this large chunk of the 18 to 24-year-old key advertising demographic notably contradicted this country’s claims of equality and justice. More importantly, to advertisers and network execs anyway, this exclusion inaccurately portrayed what people were actually watching. In an attempt to improve its reputation and avoid becoming obsolete due to burgeoning television viewing methods, Nielsen took its first step towards compiling more accurate ratings; this past January, they began to include student data in their calculations.
Recent analyses from this new student-inclusion era have concluded that the primetime audience is up by 12 percent, daytime viewership is up five percent, and late night viewership is up 9 percent. Logically, these increases should be expected; adding more people to the count results in a higher number of total viewers. Most importantly, though, is the fact that these new viewers come from the age demographic which is most coveted by advertisers seeking to influence young, whimsical buyers.
That is not to say that now, with college students added to the count, that Nielsen ratings are the end-all-be-all calculator of what people are watching. This is hardly the case. The Nielsen system is outdated, not accounting for episode downloads (and I’m not talking about the kind from “insert-network-here.com,” which are teeming with ads and thus scrupulously observed) or DVR viewing more than 24 hours after a show airs.
The biggest problem for Nielsen is that it relies on excruciatingly small samples to predict what the rest of the country is watching. There are approximately 10,000 households with Nielsen set top boxes across the country, about 450 of which include college students. And out of those 450, 30 percent agreed to have their children’s viewing habits recorded while away at school. This translates to roughly 135 students — a painfully small number to be considered representative of the entire country’s college student population, yet still more than the zero who represented us before. Furthermore, this small sample is not atypical for Nielsen data, which, at the outset, posed little problems due to the small number of channels. In the digital age, however, with more channels than we know what to do with, such a small sample can hardly be taken seriously as an accurate representation of the entire country’s viewing preferences.
But since Nielsen’s data is the best system we have, the networks have to work with it. The addition of the college demographic certainly improved Nielsen’s status, rising in rank from an arbitrary gauge to a slightly more accurate marker still rooted largely in guesswork and probability. And unfortunately entire livelihoods are built around these probabilities.
Simply stated, our television culture today owes itself to these numbers. They determine what we watch, when we watch it, and how often we watch it. Low numbers mean low ad prices, which translates into low profits for the networks. Thus any chance to improve the accuracy of Nielsen data is a welcome advancement. The real question is why it took so long for Nielsen researchers to realize the college population watches TV, and a lot of it.
College-friendly shows like Grey’s Anatomy, Family Guy and House have unsurprisingly seen their ratings rise. Although it is difficult to discern what part of House’s surge is due to its post-Idol timeslot and what can be attributed to the new demographic inclusion, a series-high 27.34 million viewers, recorded in late January, speaks for itself.
While American Idol, a ratings powerhouse, is a major contributor to House’s springtime ratings surge, the college factor is just as important. This year House is consistently keeping 90 percent of Idol’s 18 to 24-year-old lead-in audience — far greater than last year’s 70 percent average retention rate.
Perhaps the most important conclusion that can be drawn from calculating students’ viewing habits of live TV is that appointment television is not a thing of the past. Despite the prevalence of downloading shows on university campuses, students still sit down to watch TV when they can.
In the short term, downloading may deprive a show of a few well earned ratings points, but in the long run it brings widespread exposure and new loyal viewers. And ultimately, when students can actually take the time to watch the show as it airs, they will: a reality now verified by Nielsen’s more democratic measurement methods.