Hidden ratings, hiding money

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suckers

suckers (Photo credit: reallyboring)

If you searched, say using Google News, for the company Nielsen ratings, you’d find the typical assemblage of stories about how many hearts the American Idols sang their way into or which broken-hearted Bachelorette attracted the most viewers.

Why?

Because these stories are the kind that advertisers want to hear, and they are the kind that media practitioners find easiest to report. If you really want to know about the week in TV, or in any other media for that matter, just visit the Nielsen data page, enhanced for ease of access.

Among the variety of reports, however, stands out one from the New York Times, headlined “In Networks’ Race for Rating, Chicanery is on the Schedule” (at least this is how it appears online).

The article uncovers just a few of the ways the big television networks have “rigged” their programming and advertising schedule so that post-hoc ratings will appear more favorable for a particular show or time period of television viewing. Every minute of watched television in America translates to cash in the networks’ eyes and increased exposure in the advertisers’, and considering how much television Americans watch, there is a lot of money to be had.

And a lot of money to be lost.

What is most surprising about this article is how sources at Nielsen, the organization surveying American households to better understand television watching habits, react to the public news that television executives are openly rigging the system in their favor.

A Nielsen executive, who requested anonymity because of confidentiality agreements with clients, said Nielsen did have guidelines for what could be done with shows, but recognized that networks would “format their programs to generate maximum ratings impact — call it gimmicks, or call it spin.”

Unless the gimmick results in something egregiously false, Nielsen does not step in. The worse that might happen would be a sternly worded letter.

A network executive interviewed for the story likened any discipline from Nielsen as a “slap on the hand.”

In light of this, it’s worth reading Nielsen’s “About Us” statement on its website.

As a global leader in measurement and information, we believe providing our clients a precise understanding of the consumer is the key to making the right decisions — decisions that can lead to profitable growth. At Nielsen, we’re always innovating to keep pace with emerging market trends and the increasingly diverse, demanding and connected consumer.

After nearly a century, we’re more focused and skilled than ever at providing the complete view of what consumers watch and buy through powerful insights that clarify the relationship between content and commerce. Whether our clients are in media, consumer packaged goods, telecom or advertising, our expansive data and measurement capabilities provide market context and confidence through our long history of innovation and integrity.

A long history of innovation and integrity. The New York Times piece seems to reveal that neither of these practices are in play with respect to the largest television networks. Perhaps its true that the television executives have found a way around the Nielsen system and, though Nielsen recognizes this, they are unable to innovate solutions at a pace necessary to keep up with what is happening on the side of television. This, of course, is no excuse for a loss of one’s overall integrity to the advertiser, who spends millions of dollars based on these somewhat dishonest approach to surveys and analytics.

On a more minor note, this also makes those of us who rely on surveys for research look like crap.

You don’t need a big reactor to have a meltdown

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Every morning, as I’m pulling into the office, I hear Steve Chiotakis on the Marketplace Morning Report announce what will end up being the most bizarre thing I will hear all day. Thursdays are included in this statement, but only when I forget to listen to Wiretap on WBEZ at 11 a.m.

Today’s episode of Wiretap will be up against some stiff competition.

CNN.com - Large mushroom cloud

That's a big mushroom - via cnn.com

Although the story has been in the news for a couple of weeks (it having happened, according to the protagonist’s blog, on July 20), we’re just now hearing about the homemade Swedish atom splitter. As the story is told, a Swedish man, who though it would be fun to see what it’s like to split an atom, was arrested only after calling that country’s Radiation Authority to confirm whether his activities were safe.

So how big of a deal is this? A few of the mainstream news outlets, including Marketplace, are reporting it in tongue-and-cheek fashion – the photos here were included in stories published by CNN and Fox News. Others are reporting with some semblance of seriousness and brevity (see New York Times and The Examiner (San Francisco), pieces).

simpsons radioactive

Homer Simpson - via Fox News

However, I sat up after taking a quick pass at the Swedish man’s blog, on which he has been documenting his activities since May. The pictures, instructions, material quantities, even the overall look of the blog are, well, eerie.

This guy may not be the next big terrorist leader, but I’d really like to know why Blogger hasn’t pulled Richard’s Reactor from its public archives.

Ethics decisions following bin Ladin’s death

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Whether you agree with the domestic results of Osama bin Ladin’s death or not, the truth is that out of a supposed American triumph, partisan politics is again becoming one of the week’s leading stories. Was it legal or not? Should his photo be released? The most interesting, is Obama claiming too much credit?

Theoretically, these questions are intriguing and they give us – and the media – many great stories to talk about. While we could argue our opinions until kingdom come, in this case it would be wise to consider some ethical boundaries before jumping off the deep end. We should also remember that before we had any of these questions, so did the President and his colleagues. My guess is that these have been answered for a long time, and decisions that are made are highly unlikely to change.

In a renewed spirit of ethical decision-making, I’d encourage you to look over the Society of Professional Journalist’s Code of Ethics. With these in mind, you might also consider reading over this article, specifically formatted for the current situations by the folks at RTDNA.

Finally, many people are saying, possibly prematurely, that, “You will always remember where you were the day you heard about bin Ladin’s death.” But will we? Again using the media as an example to reflect our own actions, most of the umph behind stories of great value has often fizzled out around 12 days after the event has happened. The following is from On the Media:

The first few days are spent reporting breaking news and casualties and destruction. Around day five, the late miracle story in which search teams find an improbable survivor amidst the rubble. Day seven brings the interpretation of meaning story, with religious overtones. By day 12, it’s essentially buh-bye for now.

If the media or politicians want to keep an issue before the public, they must therefore continue to advance reasons for the public to remain interested – such as debating the legality of a killing that has already happened and, even if found to be illegal in whatever hypothetical court would be used, would not result in disciplinary action toward the offending party. If the death photo is released, the natural next step would be to gain public access for the video watched in the White House Situation Room.

These actions would provide some immediate sense of gratification, but, in the end, conspiracy theories would still exist (The Telegraph calls this “the gift that keeps on giving to conspiracy theorists”), people would still be disgusted with the images, and questions of good/bad, right/wrong politics would still be among the top 5 stories on every news website.

Some closing thoughts. SPJ’s ethics say a few things about conflicts of interest and lurid curiosity. Some wise reflection on these topics would do us all some good in approaching the public nature of this story. And, just in case you’re sick of all the “too-serious” conversation surrounding this issue, use this video to lighten your mood.

Two truths and a (couple) lies

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There are loads of things interesting about the community journalism efforts of creative, driven writers blogging for their communities. There are also a lot of criticisms. Regardless of your opinion of these blogger-journalists, they are still plagued by many of the same hurdles that stand in the way of “traditional” journalists.

To gain credibility in news, writers must have credible sources who feed the story’s information and provide support for any claims made. Sources can help writers be more objective in their approach. And, even if the source selection process is biased, simply having a quoted source is enough for most readers – a sad fact.

Source inclusion for the community blogger can, at times, be extremely complicated, however. See this story from The New York Times about Daniel Cavanagh, a blogger who made more than a few community members sour with the investigative pieces he’d taken on. The following excerpt from The Times represents view points taken by both parties after Cavanagh exposed some illegal activity leading to the downfall of a local nonprofit.

To Mr. Taylor [nonprofit chairman], the posts were attacks on GB Cares [nonprofit] and a betrayal of the Beach’s culture of volunteerism. And he was furious that Mr. Cavanagh had not given him an opportunity to comment before the entries were posted.

To Mr. Cavanagh, the posts exposed how things had always been done at the Beach. He said he did not speak with anyone at the organization before posting the entries because Mr. Taylor had said his car “would end up in the creek” if he wrote about the project. (Mr. Taylor said he did not “remember anything like that.”)

At this point, readers should be asking two questions. The obvious is, Why did Cavanagh not seek out Taylor for comment? The author of this Times story did just that, and Cavanagh answers that he was threatened when he sought comment. The second question is, Who is lying and who is telling the truth?

It’s beyond any of us who have no access to the facts behind this story to actually answer these questions – most readers of the story are likely to answer them in accordance with the predispositions they bring to their reading. But, what’s important is not answering those questions correctly. It’s what we perceive in asking them. Cavanagh is a blogger, which means his source list is, well, short relative to the greater journalistic population. Therefore, he must build credibility through his writing. In this particular case, a potential source, most likely more well known in the community, is calling Cavanagh’s work unethical. The protection Cavanagh once had behind his blog has collapsed, and the burden is on him to prove his credibility and his ethics.

Most journalists working for a media outlet are afforded some protection by the fact that journalism is their job. Thus, they are free to use whichever sources are available to them at the time, without much personal repercussion for using, “So and so was unavailable for comment.” They are also free to select sources based on biases not readily understood by the reading public.

Source selection can both help and harm a journalist’s story, but the reading public should be informed about the facts and predispositions behind a specific piece lest the credibility of the source or the writer is is called into question.

The media, Scientology, and lies

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On March 29, 2010 (I believe), CNN reporter Anderson Cooper, host of Anderson Cooper 360, began a series about the Scientology religion and the allegations that its leader, David Miscavige, encourages and engages in regular physical abuse of subordinates. In the first interview segment, Cooper makes reference to a series of articles written in the St. Petersburg Times about Scientology not long ago.

I first became aware of the controversies between the media and Scientology when an October 2009 letter and fact sheet was sent to members of the SPJ Ethics Committee along with a free copy of a Scientology publication titled Freedom. From what I can tell, the publication is not a regular piece, but a public relations response to the negative press received in the St. Petersburg Times. If you so choose, you can view the entire piece online. You might notice the number of pictures and articles pointing to the world-wide success of the church or those providing basic information about the religion and its leader.

Individuals who are schooled in public relations can pick out the PR elements in the piece, which immediately cause them to read it with a different tone that what’s advocated by the magazine’s subtitle: “Investigative Reporting in the Public Interest”. There is nothing about the magazine that exemplifies whatever tenants there are to direct the process of investigative reporting.

One of the claims made by Scientology officials in Freedom’s accompanying letter to ethics committee members was that the Times reporters did not give Miscavige the time to interview with them. Had Miscavige been interviewed, he certainly would have denied the allegations against his religion. The church claims Miscavige was scheduled to interview, but that the reporters decided to release the series of articles before the interview date.

Scientology officials have, therefore, been on the defensive for some time now, so it’s no surprise that Cooper and the investigative kings and queens at CNN would host a week’s long show about the controversies. However, what’s surprising is that Miscavige did not make an appearance on the show even after Cooper’s numerous on-air invitations. Everyone who knows how the media work understands that an on-air appearance could consist of something as little as a telephone call. (Again, it’s worth noting that in the response letter to the Times articles, the writer states that when the articles were released, “Mr. Miscavige was out of the country and could not possibly be present [for interview]”).

What I found most amusing and most frustrating about Cooper’s week-long program about Scientology was the back-and-forth accusations that opposing parties were lying about one another. And, after five days of interviews, there was no conclusion. Clearly, one party is telling the truth, and the other is not. Everyone in America knows that for a week, CNN broadcasted a number of lies on television.

Listening to conflicting viewpoints requires viewers to think quite hard about what is true and what is not. I’m convinced that what’s being reported on is pretty significant, and I challenge you to take some time and figure out for yourself who you can believe in this situation.

St. Petersburg Times
CNN video interviews: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5
Freedom

Terrell Owens is a god

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At least his fans think so.  At the moment, I can’t help but see similarities between Buffalo’s reception of Owens and Dallas fans’ reception of the receiving superstar when he first began with the Cowboys.

While praising the stars (television-bread superstars that is) may fall into the category of ‘hero-worship’, it seems that humanity’s search for the divine, God, transcendence or whatever you want to call it is finally finding it’s home in people – that is, people who get paid ridiculous amounts of TV money simply because they’re on TV.

Many would argue that football, baseball and other entertainment attractions have become ‘religions’ of a sort.  But, from my vantage point and Owens’ latest comments on Michael Vick’s return to the NFL, this is the first time religion is being birthed from something other than a search for moral principles that somehow transcend human instinct.

There is nothing transcendent about Owens or Vick.  They merely appear on television once and a while, sometimes on more than one channel.  Word of mouth has made them famous as their names have become household norms.  And therefore we worship them, because the media has created them.  But isn’t that what we want?  A god we can’t necessarily control, but one that we’ve essentially created.  One we can replace with others.  Distant yet near through the advancement of media and the corruption of messages.

Battle. Fight. Wrangling?

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I didn’t grow up watching the news.  In fact, it didn’t start playing on my TV until two years ago.  So, maybe I missed out on this, but maybe I didn’t – it seems the big stories cover up the other stories, regardless of size.  Who knew that Farrah Fawcett would become a lesser Michael Jackson because they both passed away on the same day?  Who knew that both stories would break at the exact time many of us were feeling burnout with the elections and protests in Iran?

This is frustrating me.  While it would be nice to see a variety of news stories told on TV, I guess I’ll just have to get with the trend of getting my news online.  Or maybe I could “tweet” at the news stations to consider my informational needs.  But, regardless of what they’re telling, the Michael Jackson story has frustrated me the most.

Just this morning, aside from officials collecting bags of medication from his home, I have heard news of the custody of his three children called a “battle,” “fight,” and about nine minutes ago a “custody wrangling.”  This was all on CNN between 7 a.m. and about 9 a.m.

Now, regardless of what you thought of Mr. Jackson, his children are not farm animals in need of “wrangling.”  As far as I know, Jackson’s parents aren’t farmers either.  What is blatantly wrong with CNN’s coverage of this story is that there is no news or even hints that anyone besides Jackson’s parents will be seeking custody of the kids this week.  And you can’t fight with no one.  Can you?

His death is already “mysterious” enough.  It’s popular.  It’s expensive.  He was, is, a star, and I expected the tabloids to latch on to the yet non-existent custody battles early.  But, the assertions made by mainstream media that the Jackson’s are in a custody “battle”  has classified itself in the same part of my brain that makes fun of scripted “Bachelorette” drama and Matthew Fox’s character (Jack) on “Lost”.

I’m sure the upcoming custody hearing (Monday), would be a news circus if Jackson’s ex-wife decided to show up.  Certainly the media would love some post Independence Day fireworks and justification for their use of “wrangling.”  I wonder who’s going to need wrangling next Monday.