My experience as a Nielsen participant

Steve Donohue, FierceCable

Years ago, soon after I began writing about the TV business, I investigated how I could find one of the households that Nielsen uses to generate its ratings reports. I thought it'd make for a great feature, documenting how one of the families that Nielsen selects for its ratings sample uses the People Meter, its key measurement tool.

I never found a Nielsen household. Nielsen doesn't reveal where they are, for fear that the viewing habits from its sample could be influenced. But this February, the next best thing happened: A Nielsen representative called me and asked if I'd be willing to participate in a ratings survey. "Sure," I said, hoping I didn't sound too eager, as I pictured a Nielsen rep showing up at my home the next week to install one of the People Meters it places in just 37,000 U.S. homes to generate ratings reports.

Had I still lived in New York, also known as Nielsen DMA No. 1, or Washington, D.C., the ninth largest market, there's a chance that I could've received a People Meter. But I've lived in the village of Liverpool, N.Y., located outside of Syracuse--DMA No. 86--since 2010. Syracuse is one of 150 smaller markets that Nielsen samples with one-week diaries four times a year during sweeps periods in February, May, July and November. I was sent a diary to measure one week of viewing during the February sweeps, along with five crisp $1 bills as an incentive to complete the survey and mail it in.

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I never completed the diary Nielsen wanted me to use for a week in February, as I was swamped that week with work and a baby with a stomach virus. I thought I had blown my chance at participating in a Nielsen survey and an opportunity to write about it, until Nielsen called again a few weeks ago. The representative didn't mention the February diary that I never mailed back, but just ran through the same set of questions asked before, including whether I worked for a TV station or broadcast network, or a cable network or operator, or if anyone in my family worked for a TV network, station, or operator. I said no, and last Tuesday, received a Nielsen diary for the week beginning April 25, along with another $5.

Nielsen would get a diary from me this time, I promised. I'd keep the diary near the remote and dutifully log my viewing anytime I watched a program for at least five minutes, as Nielsen instructed. I had good intentions, but it wasn't until Tuesday afternoon, the sixth day of my Nielsen diary, that I began to fill it out.

I don't watch a lot of TV these days. In the last week, the shows I can recall watching for at least five minutes include NBC's Today and Nightly News, a couple of segments on the DVR with John Miller's reporting on CBS This Morning, local newscasts on Syracuse NBC affiliate WSTM-TV, ABC's Shark Tank, a few episodes of TBS's Big Bang Theory, CBS Sunday Morning and the end of Sunday night's All-Star Celebrity Apprentice on NBC, when Gary Busey got the boot.

You'd think adding that limited amount of viewing to my Nielsen diary would be easy. But the diary is painful to use. For each program, Nielsen wants me to fill in five columns that list "station or channel name," channel number, date, time and the name of the program. There is less than one-quarter inch of space between the lines, making each entry difficult to write, and with my handwriting, even harder for Nielsen to read.

The more time I spend with the diary, the more I realize how difficult it must be for TV stations in the 150 markets that still rely on Nielsen diaries to make programming decisions and sell advertising. How is it possible to generate accurate ratings in markets that only measure viewing with diaries, and only during the sweeps periods? I called Nielsen to ask for some feedback for this piece, and emailed its communications team several questions. I wanted to learn more about how many diaries Nielsen sends to homes in Syracuse and nationwide during sweeps periods and how many participants fail to mail the diaries back at the end of the week, as I neglected to in February. I also wanted to know why Nielsen sent me a second diary after I failed to complete the February survey. But Nielsen didn't respond to any of those questions.

I also left phone and email messages with Chris Geiger, the president of Barrington Broadcasting's NBC Syracuse affiliate WSTM-TV, the station that so far has generated the most entries in my Nielsen diary. I would've loved to include feedback on the challenges stations like WSTM face compared to stations in the top 25 markets that get more detailed and frequent reports from People Meters. But considering the steps Nielsen takes to ensure that its sample isn't influenced by the stations and networks it tracks, I'm not surprised that he didn't respond to interview requests.

I was, however, able to interview Stacey Lynn Schulman, the SVP and chief research officer at the Television Bureau of Advertising (TVB), a trade group that represents local broadcasters. Schulman said my approach to filling out the Nielsen diary--waiting until late in the week to record viewing from previous days--is pretty common. "It's more an exercise in memory than it is an exercise in true behavior," Schulman said regarding the diary process.

As a reporter who covers the industry, my experience with the Nielsen diary has been frustrating partly because I know there are much more effective ways to measure viewing, including ratings that are generated from data collected from set-tops in cable and satellite TV homes. Nielsen has said it plans to integrate data collected from set-tops in its ratings reports, and research firms such as Rentrak are also selling data collected from set-tops to programmers and TV stations.

But as Schulman notes, relying on set-tops for ratings isn't perfect either, since it is difficult to determine which member of a household is watching a program, or whether a viewer turned off the TV without powering down the set-top.

Years from now, I think we'll see Nielsen and other measurement firms use facial recognition technology incorporated in devices such as Microsoft's (Nasdaq: MSFT) Xbox with Kinect to determine who is watching a program. Verizon (NYSE: VZ) detailed the potential for the technology last year with in a targeted advertising patent application. Facial recognition technology could enable true passive measurement of TV viewing, which researchers such as Schulman consider the holy grail.

And while privacy advocates may protest the idea of using facial recognition technology to measure the viewing of TV programming and advertising, as Schulman notes, "It's hard to predict today what people will accept tomorrow." -Steve