Every May, during major TV network upfronts, you’ll hear a furious uproar from devoted fans over ratings. “Why did they cancel this show? It was so good!” It’s a familiar cry. You probably heard it when Fox cancelled BROOKLYN NINE-NINE on May 10, 2018. Luckily, NBC picked up BROOKLYN NINE-NINE for a 13-episode season. However, shows like QUANTICO and ONCE UPON A TIME saw the guillotine.

Our affinities and reviews of certain shows are subjective preferences. But who’s calling objective shots on a show’s survival? That power belongs to the major TV networks. They rely on Nielsen standards and metrics to determine show ratings. How Nielsen compiles this data is quite the intricate process that results in various experiences for participants involved.

Nielsen studies a small representative sample (think around one percent or more) of the over 119.6 million U.S. households with televisions.  They claim to encompass a diverse sample that reflects the races, genders, geographies, and ages of the U.S. population. What diverse means is quite vague. The households involved, however, have to do a couple of things  for Nielsen to compile their ratings data. However, the only thing that we can have no doubt about whatsoever is that the quality and honestly of those who answer it’s questionaire varies greatly.

The Rage Over Ratings

According to Forbes, Nielsen “primarily measures viewing numbers with electronic meters that track what the televisions are tuned to. They also install black boxes – aka a computer and a modem – which deliver the viewing data from the TVs to Nielsen every night.”

The people meters, set meters, and code readers are key to Nielsen’s measurement process. According to Nielsen, these tools “ listen for specific codes, called watermarks, which are unique sounds inaudible to the human ear. These codes are embedded into the audio of all measured programs and ads by TV stations as they air their programming. When a program or ad plays on the screen, Nielsen’s meters will note the specific watermark and which households viewed the content. This code tells Nielsen what is being viewed as well as when it’s viewed.”

Guests receive assigned numbers if they visit a Nielsen household.
Guests are given assigned numbers if they visit a Nielsen household (Public Domain).

But there’s another piece of the methodology equation that’s more personal: the diary. The diary is a “booklet sent out to a sample of households whose members document the programs they’ve viewed during one week for the given month. Panelists then mail these back to Nielsen,” states the company.

Measuring Ratings is a Complicated Business

Nielsen’s been measuring audience studies as early as the 1930s, seven years after the engineer Arthur C. Nielsen started the company in 1923. Since then, it has implemented meters and diaries to gather data for ratings measurements across mediums.

Loads of resources, including Nielsen itself, that I’ve linked to go into detail about the statistical sampling. Yet, who are the people involved in these household surveys? With Nielsen’s long history, there’s plenty of people who’ve had experiences, but what is it like? Nielsen protects the privacy of its panelists, but some have already shared their experiences with the world.

It first starts with a knock on a door or a pamphlet in the mail from a Nielsen representative, according to ThoughtCo. This happens by random selection. Representatives typically ask a series of qualifying questions. Once successfully completed, Nielsen starts the set-up process. Technicians will come and install the meters for every TV in a house. Depending on how many TVs you have, this might take a while.

Being a Nielsen Household is a Commitment

Then, each person in the household receives an assigned a number and extra numbers for guests. Every time you watch TV, you must use a remote control to register. The meter light turns on for the corresponding person. If you forget to use the remote, the TV starts to blink until you and someone else registers.

“The way Nielsen set it up, we would also have to ‘refresh’ who was watching it every 45 minutes. So, 45 minutes into a show the lights would start flashing until we hit the button again,” said a panelist. The panelist continued, “each time we would watch TV we would use the remote control to sign into who was watching TV. The monitoring box light would turn on for that particular person or persons.”

Panelists will do this for about two years or so. Nielsen regularly checks in with panelists. They receive some compensation, but as the panelist states, “we received $50 every six months for a total of $200. We were told that we would receive a $100 thank you gift at the end of the 24 months.”

Does The Process Affect People’s TV Consumption Habits?

At first, some panelists found that the process consciously affected how they watched TV. But they adjusted. While others believed they held the power to make or break shows. In a 2015 piece for Vulture about his 2006 Nielsen experience, panelist Melvin Mar expressed a similar belief.

nielen black box
Nielsen meters connect to TVs in households (Public Domain).

He wrote, “During our time as a Nielsen family, my wife took her duties seriously, while I had fun with it — maybe too much. I fiddled with the number of guests viewing at our home and often hooked up people I worked with and liked — for example, David Duchovny, whose first season of CALIFORNICATION had just debuted in 2007.”

He continues, “We had a lot of ‘viewing parties’ for that show, though I never told David about it. And I’m still convinced that my viewing habits helped keep CHUCK (starring my friend Zachary Levi — I also never told Zach) on for five seasons. I thought of myself as their silent ratings Obi-Wan, watching over their shows.” Typically, Nielsen tries to avoid putting TV industry people in their research, but this was a slippery scenario as Melvin worked in movies, not TV.

Experiences Vary For Every Nielsen Household

Not everyone experiences the research this way. His wife took it seriously. Whereas, he had fun. But his story highlights a slither of people’s views about the process. This also comes to show that panelists will always have wildly different responses to being a panelist, which may or may not affect their TV consumption, and thus data. Regardless, when it comes to TV panel research, it’s a tricky business trying to encapsulate panelists TV habits to a nationwide scale.


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