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.
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.