Feature

TV’s phony ratings game

February is “sweeps” month, when television networks try to goose ratings with stunts, celebrity guest stars, and “special reports.” How do networks count their viewers, and why does almost everyone think they’re doing it wrong?

What are the Nielsen ratings?They’re a measure of who watches what on television. This information is critical to advertisers, and thus to television executives, who judge a show’s success by two criteria: how much it costs to make and how much advertising revenue it generates. For more than 40 years, one private company, Nielsen Media Research, has provided almost all the ratings that determine which TV shows succeed and which fail.

What is Nielsen’s technique?The company has several ways of gauging audience sizes—and TV networks, advertisers, and academic experts doubt the accuracy of all of them. To measure audiences for nationally broadcast shows like Friends and CSI, Nielsen relies on 5,000 “people meters” set up in homes throughout the country. These boxes have buttons for family members to log in and out whenever they watch TV. The meters track how many people watch each program throughout the day, and provide a breakdown of their age, gender, and other demographic information. Every night, the meters transmit this information to Nielsen computers. These “overnights” are what most people mean when they talk about TV ratings.

Are these ratings accurate?Up to a point. Nielsen uses census data and other sources to select 5,000 families who, in theory, perfectly reflect the demographic makeup of the country. But 60 percent of people approached by Nielsen refuse to have meters in their homes, and studies have found that the 5,000 people who do agree tend to be younger, wealthier, and more avid TV watchers than average. Even Nielsen admits that 5,000 homes is too small a sample for a nation of 270 million people. Skeptics even question whether the meters accurately measure what those 5,000 homes are watching.

Why the skepticism?The meters’ accuracy depends on people’s faithfully recording what they watch—and studies indicate that they don’t. Men, the studies show, are better than women at remembering to push the buttons on the meters. Children forget frequently. So ratings are skewed toward shows men like, while women’s and kids’ shows are underrated. When people meters were first introduced 16 years ago, ratings for kids’ shows plummeted, while those for sports soared. Eventually, everyone suffers from “button fatigue.” Sixty percent of metered families drop out before their two-year tour of duty is over. Television and advertising executives grumble about these national problems, but they save their real venom for the local Nielsens.

What are local Nielsens?These are measurements of how many people are watching programs that are created by local TV stations—the WNBCs and KCBSs. These stations are grouped into 210 “markets,” or regions, throughout the country. Since local stations produce very little original programming, local Nielsens focus almost entirely on ratings for the evening and nightly local news broadcasts. In the 55 biggest markets, Nielsen measures these audiences with 20,000 “set meters.” When the TV goes on, these meters automatically record what’s being watched. TV stations in the smallest 155 markets can’t afford to pay Nielsen to do electronic measurements, so for the bulk of the country, Nielsen gets its local ratings with its oldest technology.

What is that?Paper diaries. Four times a year, during sweeps months, Nielsen sends paper diaries to 100,000 people. Whenever the TV is on, they’re supposed to fill out the diary every 15 minutes. Only half the people asked to fill out diaries agree to do so, and of that group, nearly 70 percent either never mail the diaries back or fill them out so incorrectly that they can’t be used. “On the edge of technical revolution, we’re using a system that belongs to the dinosaurs,” complains CBS president Leslie Moonves. Nonetheless, the results of the diaries and the set meters are combined to produce the critical sweeps ratings for November, February, May, and July.

Why are sweeps important?These ratings are used to set advertising rates throughout the year, with billions of dollars flowing to the top-rated stations. Local affiliates, in turn, send billions to the networks for their programming. So both local stations and the networks pull out all stops in this sweeps month of February. Local news broadcasts bristle with “special reports” on swimsuits, miracle diets, and other attention-grabbers, while networks stock their schedules with blockbuster films and specials. “Advertisers buy time on stations 365 days a year,” one ad exec complains, “yet we have no idea what the ratings are for most of the year when there aren’t those hyped, big-event programs.” That’s just the way the system works, says Nielsen official Jack Loftus. “Is it bizarre? Of course.”

Can the system be fixed?Not without spending more money than anyone wants to. The networks pay Nielsen up to $15 million each for electronically metered ratings. That’s far more than affiliates can afford. In May 2002, Nielsen experimented with phasing out diaries by switching one local market—Boston—to people meters. Local stations rebelled when some of their ratings dropped by nearly a third, while cable ratings soared. Analysts weren’t surprised. People who usually watch Friends will write it in a diary even if they missed it one week. But they’ll forget they watched 20 minutes of a show they’d never seen before on an obscure cable channel. Many local Boston stations no longer use Nielsen. Living without Nielsen ratings was very difficult at first, says the manager of one affiliate. But like kicking “any other addiction, you feel a little healthier with each passing day.”

The man whose name means ratings

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