Hidden ratings, hiding money


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.


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.


Why younger people don’t read the newspaper

A girl holds The Washington Post of Monday, Ju...

Image via Wikipedia

Three things happened within the last week or so that led me to write this post.

  1. The New York Times website alerted me that I had only 4 articles left to read until I was kicked out behind the pay wall for the rest of the month.
  2. The PIPA and SOPA legislations attracted a lot of attention at the hands of Google, Wikipedia, and others, if only momentary, for internet freedom.
  3. My autumn 2011 copy of Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly arrived in the mail and includes an article about why young people have stopped reading the newspaper.

The bulk of this post will focus on a review of that article in the spirit of looking at journalism and mass communication through eyes seeking its advancement rather than its demise. For all the scholars out there, this is the article to which I’m referring:

Zerba, A. (2011). Young adults’ reasons behind avoidances of daily print newspapers and their ideas for change. Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly 88(3), 597-614.

What initially sets this study apart from others is its qualitative nature. Zerba sites several studies that addressed the phenomenon of, as she terms them, “nonuses,” from a uses and gratifications (U & G) approach. Because both U & G research and studies of newspaper use and nonuse have been rather prevalent since the advent of journalism research, the focus group method employed is able to better unpack in detail the nonuse findings of other generations. These include lack of time; availability of other media choices; access; and possible bias, to name a few. As the author states, she aims “to get at the underlying meaning of nonuse” (p. 597).

Possibly of greater importance, focus groups enable the researcher to capture a small slice of one of the primary news-reading audiences highly affected by the current shift from print to digital. And in an age where the internet has become a concept of legal upheaval, a study of print media is extremely relevant.

Zerba puts forth two research questions:

  1. What are the most popular reasons for not using a daily newspaper?
  2. What would your ideal print newspaper include?

Focus groups were formed using research companies in three major cities – Chicago, San Antonio, and Dallas. Sixty four adults between the ages of 18 and 29 were assembled in total (an error in San Antonio resulted in eight groups for evaluation, rather than the anticipated six). The discussions had among the groups revealed results that were both predictable based on previous research and worthy of reflection with respect to today’s somewhat tumultuous media environment.

In sum, adults 29 and under viewed newspapers as

  1. Difficult and inconvenient to access and use
  2. Environmentally unfriendly
  3. Slow to report the news and redundant
  4. Difficult to multitask with
  5. Drag on one’s time
  6. Irrelevant to the age group
  7. Boring
  8. Biased

When given the opportunity to design their own daily print newspaper, respondents decided that the perfect paper would be:

  1. Brief with only the fact
  2. Local in focus
  3. Inclusive of diverse perspectives
  4. Simply formatted and aesthetically pleasing with color, pictures, and a table of contents
  5. Easily accessible
  6. More entertainment content
  7. Topically specialized
  8. With slightly less negative news and summation of leading news items
Front page of the first issue of The New York ...

Image via Wikipedia

In sum, young people want a newspaper that is easily accessible and up-to-date, aesthetically pleasing, and convenient for their multitask, on-the-go lifestyles. In essence, young people want the internet.

In today’s world, to describe why people choose not to use a newspaper, even though they call themselves news aficionados, is to describe why people do use the internet. The real question for practitioners in the news world coming out of this study might not be, “How can we make our print product more accessible to the younger demographic of readers,” but, “How can we make our online product more accessible to everyone?”

Look at the New York Times online. It doesn’t look all that different from the company’s print product. Look at the Washington Post online. Stunning images, fonts, headlines, and masthead all there. Purchase digital subscriptions and customize your own news on your mobile device.

The only way for a print enterprise to save its print product from extinction is to dramatically change the content offered through its online medium. This is why I am in favor of paywalls, especially when a particular newspaper, say a local one, does not have the human resources to produce new electronic content that will add value to its overall product.

I love this article because of its methodology and because of what it says about individuals of my age. I like to live in my bubble and believe that most people are like me. But they are not. And my close-minded perspective is selfish and unjustified. This does not, however, stop me from hoping that a more literate cohort of twentysomethings will rise up and work as hard to “save” journalism as the generations before us did to build it.



I’m in the middle of  a research revelation and an ideological one, the two of which are struggling to meet in my mind.

First, the research. The movement known as Occupy is clearly not an isolated movement. It has attracted many people from across the world to act in ways that seem, even to those of us who are statistically part of the 99 percent. It is also salient because it came during a time when revolts and protests are not exactly that difficult to find in the news. For the second time this year, Tahrir Square in Egypt is full of citizen protestors. Two years ago, Iran made front page news as the first truly Twitter-aided election protests. The Arab Spring, as it is called, has thrust the importance of the Middle East in the West’s face, probably quicker than it was ready to accept.

So, it is no surprise that we have the Occupy movements happening now as well as the media’s consistent coverage of them. Because protests, revolts, and uprisings have becoming such hot news items in recent years, I wonder if this has always been the case throughout the history of news media. Have the media always covered protests with such fervor? Have they ever been biased in their coverage? What is the history behind the coverage of protests in the United States? This is what I think I’m after.

Secondly with my ideological issues. Last night, I watched Page One, a documentary about The New York Times with a focus on the faltering newspaper market. There is a point where media reporter David Carr admits how comical he thinks it is when people are both excited and scared to talk to him. I mean, he is The New York Times. He is part of the institution of journalism. But, he’s also a person doing his job. True, I’ve had people tell me they love what I do, but Carr operates in an entirely other universe, where even the people with the coolest jobs would take a pay cut and move to the Bronx just to set foot inside the Times building.

But, Times reporters are just people. If you call their office phone lines, they may pick up. You can find them at local New York eateries or scattered around the globe doing their jobs. After watching this documentary, I’m reminded, as I often am, at just how much labor truly goes into crafting a solid front-page news story – or any story in the paper for that matter. They work long hours, are at the whim of their sources, wear their creativity on their sleeves proudly, and in the end are still dependent on their editors’ decisions as to the quality of their work.

And researchers are always digging through the archives with the intent of uncovering some sort of framing bias or support for some theoretical shift in the way journalism happens.

Therefore, I’d like to approach this project with a historian’s eye. No bias except probably one that allows me to respect the work of journalists.

Conan, comedy, and what’s important


As I was frantically putting together the last few things for the duathlon I raced this morning, I jumped online to catch up on some of the latest news and found a March 11 story from The New York Times blog “Media Decoder” about Conan O’Brien’s national comedy tour. After I read the story, realizing that he was performing in both Austin and Dallas, I quickly looked for tickets, the Conan fan I am.

All were sold out. Even the most/least expensive seats.

On the car ride home from the race, I began comparing the sold-out Conan comedy shows with what I experience just a week ago at the AEJMC Regional Conference in Norman, Okla. During this conference, I attended a number of interesting sessions in which I heard people talk about Twitter, podcasts, and the Nike+iPod running/exercise combination, among other things.

I presented a paper on media, religion, and views of scientific controversy to a packed auditorium of about 7 people. This was not much of a surprise given the average number of attendees in the paper presentations I’d watched prior to mine.

After the conference, I was astounded at how much information I had tried to absorb in less than two days. I also reflected on the importance of much of that information including my own research and whether my interests are important enough to be considered in the future by the scholarly community.

Compare these concerns with those of late-night television hosts, or any television host for that matter. Sure Conan was dropped by NBC, but he’s obviously had no trouble filling seats for his latest comedy hurrah. Comedy and entertainment media in general have so captured the hearts of our country that the “important” stuff seems to be sprinkled amongst a mixture of laughter, cheers, and tears.

I wonder when the day will finally come when there is no need for important content or rational thought. Will everything but the NFL and “The Bachelor” be seen as “just wasting time”? Is anybody listening to this? This is “important” after all.

‘The book-less library’


On February 10, The New York Times blog Room for Debate featured a discussion focused on the removal of some 20,000 books from one school library. After reading the professional responses, an obvious thread emerged: taking away our books will have educational effects most of us are unaware of.

If you’re a Generation X-er, twentysometing, millennial, or whatever you call yourself, you’re probably thinking that sacrificing books for e-readers and online content isn’t such a bad idea. For one, many of us still have a deal of disposable income coming in the form of allowances or high-priced gifts from our parents. Therefore, accessing this content isn’t too much of a problem. Additionally, most of us have no idea what  it means to do research by checking out books from the library. We’ve been quite spoiled by the massive amount of online journals free through our universities.

I recognize these statements are rather general, but one point remains true: we do not value the printed word in the same way as the generations before us did. This may also be due in part to the fact that when we think of the printed word, both online words and on-page words are pretty much interchangeable.

All that aside, one of the most striking arguments against removing books from libraries is made by Nicholas Carr:

The pages of a book shield us from the distractions that bombard us during most of our waking hours. As an informational medium, the book focuses our attention, encouraging the kind of immersion in a story or an argument that promotes deep comprehension and deep learning.

If you read the whole discussion online, you may or may not be persuaded by the logic employed. If you are and believe physical books hold a valuable place in our society, why do you believe this is so? Sure, we could argue about tradition and the “feel” of physical matter in your hands, but those arguments aren’t going to fly with up-and-coming generations who may never know what it was like to be separated from the television and computer screens.

I pose the same question to those of you who think physical books are merely a waste of space and money. Why? Not everyone has the Internet, and not everyone has the money to get the Internet. If you support the argument that books are utterly pointless for our generation, what can be done about those people who can’t do or get what you can?

Digital print is certainly in vogue and doesn’t look to be a simple fading fad. Therefore, it’s up to people on both sides of the line to think about how these technologies work together for the greater good.

If you’re young and think arguments about books being the means to great knowledge are irrelevant, you might want to read another Room for Debate topic: The Library, Through Students’ Eyes.

Live updates from the Haitian front line


My graduate program director forwarded us the link to a New York Times blog (The Lede), which is posting frequent video, picture, Twitter list, etc. updates about the goings-on in Haiti including a number of sources for individuals to donate to support rescue and medical crews and those who are seeking information about family.

Again, you can click here to go to the site. I assume they’ll continue updating for some time to come.