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Why Does Nielsen Reign Supreme Over the Kingdom?

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Written By

March 31st, 2008

The KingFrank Foster wrote a great column over on MediaPost's TV BOARD on Nielsen and how it's time for something new.  He concluded the piece, 'The King is Dead. Long Live the King!' with this:

I know it sounds ominous, but a solution inspired by the French exists. Storm the Bastille! If we simply admit that the king is no longer working for the good of the people, we can toss the family lineage in favor of a more righteous king. Or better yet, we could conduct a search for a new research company who will work without outrageously expensive, long term, staggered contracts. After all, recent events point to the obvious; the current king is only in it for the money. And last I checked, he's not dead yet - he just wants to go public.

It was a very thoughtful piece and I recommend reading the whole thing, and I'm not saying that just because I was born on Bastille Day!   But it really got me thinking about things.   It is about the money.  But not just for Nielsen, but ABC, CBS, NBC etc, and for the advertisers too.

I think about systems of things and why things stay the same and don't change even when there are many voices seemingly screaming for change.  I always bet on inertia.  

In order to break through inertia, what's required is a revolution.  A straight-up revolt. There is no Bastille storming without a revolution.  But who's interest is the revolution really in?  It's certainly not in Nielsen's interest, but what about the advertisers and broadcasters? 

Theoretically the networks could band together and fund a measurement company but the advertisers need at least the illusion that it's coming from an independent 3rd party, so that won't work.  Even though it's fairly clear (to me at least) that Nielsen's bias is towards the networks and not the advertisers in the current system..  I suspect that's simply because Nielsen derives much more of its TV ratings revenue from the networks and not the advertisers. I'm not sure a measurement company supported by the TV networks would carry a measurably worse bias.

Someone could do something that mirrored what Nielsen does and try to compete, but unless they knew they were going to get Jeff Zucker's bucks beforehand, building that company is a bit of a dicey proposition.  And of course Mr. Zucker isn't going to want to pay for the data until he can see it.  All the hubbub about set-to-box data doesn't cure all ills either.  It would be a great system if everybody in the USA had a set-top box, or perhaps even if just a healthy majority.  But it's more like 50-50.  Half the homes have them, about half don't. 

The set-top box data is great I'm sure, and to the degree that they can overlay demographic data on it, it has to be fabulous and worth paying for at least if all the set-top data were gathered, reported and distributed in the same way.  But of course, it isn't, and there seems to be no hurry to get any kind of standardization.    But, whatever the quality of the numbers,  it can't be very good in terms of measuring what everyone is watching if there's some 40+ million homes with basic cable and no set-top box on top of those folks who still only use a good, old-fashioned antenna.  Is it fair to take the set-top box data and project it out onto the whole pie?  Probably not. 

It's also not clear to me that the advertisers really want better data.  What if Nielsen makes significant inroads with its "Anytime Anywhere Media Measurement" and it turns out that when you throw in Super Bowl parties and sports bars another 25 million people were watching the Super Bowl  who weren't previously counted?  Do you think the advertisers would be happy about that?  I doubt it.

So while I think Frank Foster most likely hit the nail on the head,  the dissention seems to come mostly from wonks, and pundits, and wannabes like me with blogs who think on it, and of course, the fans who just had their favorite show cancelled based on Nielsen ratings.  But if Nielsen is the king ruling over the advertisers and broadcasters, the kingdom mostly seems quite peaceful.  Sure, the minions may whine a bit here and there, but it's the equivalent of whining  about lack of parking, overzealous meter maids, traffic, etc., hardly the stuff of revolt that would lead to the Bastille being stormed.

I do ask myself "But, but...why not!?  Why don't they revolt?  Why don't they storm the Bastille?"   I'm sticking with inertia. For now it seems, the King is good enough for the kingdom.

 
  • Julia

    The thing is, since the numbers we are getting for most shows (sporting events excluded) are fairly accurate, what's the need really? If another company were to come along and be competitive, it would be like GIA vs whatever those other diamond grading companies are. One has all the prestige, and therefore is considered better. (There may be valid reasons for GIA being better than the others, but for a layperson, it's just the prestige, and the fact that diamonds graded by GIA cost more.)

    The two companies will most likely be saying just about the same thing, prices may drop a bit, but what effect does that have on the people who are currently the ones clamoring for change? Do you think prices would drop to the point where every guy with a blog can go out and buy the ratings? No, and what would the point of that be?

    Bottom line is, while Nielsen is far from perfect, I don't really think there's a need for external change. They should be working on the internals, before it comes to a point where there really does need to be a new company, but for now, I see no fault with inertia.

  • Julia

    The thing is, since the numbers we are getting for most shows (sporting events excluded) are fairly accurate, what’s the need really? If another company were to come along and be competitive, it would be like GIA vs whatever those other diamond grading companies are. One has all the prestige, and therefore is considered better. (There may be valid reasons for GIA being better than the others, but for a layperson, it’s just the prestige, and the fact that diamonds graded by GIA cost more.)

    The two companies will most likely be saying just about the same thing, prices may drop a bit, but what effect does that have on the people who are currently the ones clamoring for change? Do you think prices would drop to the point where every guy with a blog can go out and buy the ratings? No, and what would the point of that be?

    Bottom line is, while Nielsen is far from perfect, I don’t really think there’s a need for external change. They should be working on the internals, before it comes to a point where there really does need to be a new company, but for now, I see no fault with inertia.

  • david gifford

    …and the King SUCKS! Down with the King!

  • david gifford

    …and the King SUCKS! Down with the King!

  • norsu

    Excellent article – And an angle that I am exploring. Nielsen is a roque monopoly, the major networs are in on it and extracting major $ from advertisers who just pass it along to all of us – the consumer. They are all fat and happy raking in the Millions!

    We literally need a revolt to change this!

  • norsu

    Excellent article – And an angle that I am exploring. Nielsen is a roque monopoly, the major networs are in on it and extracting major $ from advertisers who just pass it along to all of us – the consumer. They are all fat and happy raking in the Millions!

    We literally need a revolt to change this!

  • norsu

    I have started a Nuts to Nielsen campaign – anyone else mad – feel free to jump in and Shell Nielsen!1,000 pounds shelled already first weekend.

    If you feel uncounted…

    Get em here http://www.nutsonline.com

    Send em here

    Shipping to:
    The Nielsen Company
    770 Broadway
    New York, NY 10003-9595
    United States
    phone: +1 646 654 5000

    IR Contact
    David Berger: +1 646 654 5057
    david.berger@nielsen.com

    Tell em

    HEY NIELSEN, COUNT THIS!

  • norsu

    I have started a Nuts to Nielsen campaign – anyone else mad – feel free to jump in and Shell Nielsen!1,000 pounds shelled already first weekend.

    If you feel uncounted…

    Get em here http://www.nutsonline.com

    Send em here

    Shipping to:
    The Nielsen Company
    770 Broadway
    New York, NY 10003-9595
    United States
    phone: +1 646 654 5000

    IR Contact
    David Berger: +1 646 654 5057
    david.berger@nielsen.com

    Tell em

    HEY NIELSEN, COUNT THIS!

  • http://tvbythenumbers.com Robert Seidman

    Norsu, thanks for the kind words. I love your passion, but I try to love with my heart and think with my brain. Your strategy seems flawed. Nuts are savory treats that people love. They’ll simply eat the nuts or give them to people who will.

    If you’re going to do this, I suggest something more along the lines of eating the nuts yourselves and just sending the shells.

    I don’t really recommend that either though.

  • http://tvbythenumbers.com Robert Seidman

    Norsu, thanks for the kind words. I love your passion, but I try to love with my heart and think with my brain. Your strategy seems flawed. Nuts are savory treats that people love. They'll simply eat the nuts or give them to people who will.

    If you're going to do this, I suggest something more along the lines of eating the nuts yourselves and just sending the shells.

    I don't really recommend that either though.

  • http://yahoo.com Jenny G.

    Your thoughtful lengthy blogs are MY Favorite!!! I check out PerezHilton, DailyKos, and HuffingtonPost EVERYday, but your blog pieces are what I look forward to most. Keep up the awesome work.

  • http://yahoo.com Jenny G.

    Your thoughtful lengthy blogs are MY Favorite!!! I check out PerezHilton, DailyKos, and HuffingtonPost EVERYday, but your blog pieces are what I look forward to most. Keep up the awesome work.

  • Mul

    For goodness’ sake, I can scarcely imagine the casting this analogy implies. Norsu as Georges Couthon, perhaps? I suppose I’d find myself a Girondist.

  • Mul

    For goodness' sake, I can scarcely imagine the casting this analogy implies. Norsu as Georges Couthon, perhaps? I suppose I'd find myself a Girondist.

  • Guess Who

    Cant believe people are actually sending peanuts to Nielsen. Harrassing Nielsen isnt going to save any TV show – it cant.

    People ask why Nielsen reigns supreme. Its because theyve been doing it for decades. Most people dont understand the methodology they use and have never even taken a college level statistics course; but the people paying for the TV shows and the network execs do understand it. Nielsen may be off a little if you actually asked every single TV viewer what they watch but its pretty accurate. People are also mystified as to how 1,000 people chosen for political polls can represent a whole country accurately – but 99% of the time they accurately predict the final vote with a margin of error of 3% or so. Some suggest putting a Nielsen box in every TV made, problem is alot of people dont want BIG BROTHER watching them —–Orwells Big Brother, not the cheesy CBS series. And you count simply say Jericho or Moonlight or Invasion fans could volunteer to put them in their TVs as that would skew the numbers badly. Nielsen is the best system available and thats why its used.

  • Guess Who

    Cant believe people are actually sending peanuts to Nielsen. Harrassing Nielsen isnt going to save any TV show – it cant.

    People ask why Nielsen reigns supreme. Its because theyve been doing it for decades. Most people dont understand the methodology they use and have never even taken a college level statistics course; but the people paying for the TV shows and the network execs do understand it. Nielsen may be off a little if you actually asked every single TV viewer what they watch but its pretty accurate. People are also mystified as to how 1,000 people chosen for political polls can represent a whole country accurately – but 99% of the time they accurately predict the final vote with a margin of error of 3% or so. Some suggest putting a Nielsen box in every TV made, problem is alot of people dont want BIG BROTHER watching them —–Orwells Big Brother, not the cheesy CBS series. And you count simply say Jericho or Moonlight or Invasion fans could volunteer to put them in their TVs as that would skew the numbers badly. Nielsen is the best system available and thats why its used.

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