Nielsen admits “we were full of shit all along”

Okay, I’m exaggerating slightly when I say they admitted this. But they are, and they know it, and so does everyone else, and now they’re disguising a glaring past mistake as something that, once corrected, will “add to the accuracy” of their results. Are you ready for this? Hold on.

From now on, when they make you a Nielsen household and let your viewing habits help determine the entirety of TV programming for the United States, they’re also going to count the viewing habits of your kids who are away at college.

Let’s break this down. This means they weren’t counting college kids before, unless they lived at home. But… aren’t college kids part of the precious 18-25 and 18-34 target audiences whose preferences govern the entire market? Then… well… how have they been telling us all along what this demographic wanted to see if they weren’t fully polling the demographic? I will now consult the Voice of Nielsen that lives in my head to help me out with these complex and confusing arguments.

VoN: “Well, we were counting some 18-25 year olds.”

Me: “Yes. The ones who were living with a family that has a Nielsen box.”

VoN: “You got it, peaches. Say, you fill out that sweater nicely. Wanna come sit on Uncle Niely’s lap?”

Me (automatically ignoring that): “So, basically, you only give boxes to households – which kind of leaves out singles as well as kids at school.   That means your insistence that the 18-25 demographic wants to see X has really just been based on what families watch when they have a kid in that age group at home?   You’ve been using a really  narrow subsection of a demographic and claiming it tells us what 18-25 year old kids in general want to see.   You do realize you just proved me right about you, don’t you?”

VoN: “Uh… could you say the middle part again?   The one where you started using that big D word?”

Me: *bangs head on desk, thinks better of it and bangs their heads on a desk*


  1. MaggieCat says

    In addition to the fact that their old regulations were leaving out the majority of 18-25 year olds, even the ones that they were taking into a account were likely skewed. I can think of a bunch of things that I couldn’t have watched with my parents, either because I’d have been uncomfortable (Hi Sex and the City!) or because my parents hated them (Poor Firefly, which I still haven’t gotten around to seeing).

  2. Jennifer Kesler says

    Exactly! What a household containing 18-25 year olds watches does not translate to “this is what 18-25 year olds want to see”. But that’s how it’s been pitched to us all these years.

    In film school, we saw a documentary that compared the ratings system to The Emperor’s New Clothes. Advertisers are desperate to believe there’s a specific slot where their ad will bring them all the sales they want; the Nielsens construct this myth for them rather than demystify anything.

    Everyone from Business Week to the Wall Street Journal has reported that no matter what marketers think, women have a voice in 80% of all household transactions in the US – which means, even if you reach the men of the family or the kids, you also need to sell Mom on it. And in more recent studies, of course, women are earning higher and higher percentages of household income; we have more money to throw around than ever before. Ignore that, and you deserve to lose sales. It’s common sense.

    But advertisers don’t want to hear this, so that’s not what Nielsen tells them.

  3. Jennifer Kesler says

    What the Nielsens are doing that’s just so crazy is this: they’re supposed to be helping advertisers make smart choices (in purchasing air time) but in reality they’re used to help networks sell air time to the advertisers. And to do this, you need a story to tell advertisers, and the Nielsens become all about creating the story, not about revealing the truth.

    And what story do advertisers want to hear? That they have justification for continued focus on a white male market. Ad agencies don’t want to learn new tricks anymore than any other industry. And the thing is, when a TV ad doesn’t work, you can’t prove it was the wrong air time that did it, so the ratings are never blamed.

  4. MaggieCat says

    Advertisers are desperate to believe there’s a specific slot where their ad will bring them all the sales they want; the Nielsens construct this myth for them rather than demystify anything.

    Well, it’s been well proven that you make far more money telling people what they want to hear, rather than by explaining why what they want is impossible or takes more work or costs more.

    I’ve always thought the rule about using households was backwards anyway. I can see the appeal of getting results from more viewers using less equipment/costs, but you’d think the chances of ending up with only middleground results would outweigh that. Rather than rewarding the shows that are good and original, they reward the the shows that are the least likely to offend anyone too much.

    Which probably explains why there are so many shows that are copies of other shows that are copies of other shows… and all of them seem to treat women as a niche audience because that’s what the advertisers they’re courting still do because that’s the belief the Nielsen people have found data to support. One big, depressing, lowest-common-denominator-courting cycle.

  5. scarlett says

    Haha, reminds me of a time channel seven had claimed to win the Sydney timeslot for one particular show, except it turned out, the power was out in Sydney for the entire night. They backbeddald like hell, but the upshot of it was ‘we made it up, and we didn’t even both making up something we could defend’.

  6. Jennifer Kesler says

    I think people in entertainment sometimes work so long with fiction they can no longer even recognize reality. Seriously.


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