Nielsen Probe Finds People Not Pushing Buttons Properly: The Bigger The Audience, The Bigger The Discrepancy
Nielsen did not release information showing what the effect was on specific TV outlets, programs or dayparts, and the average is the net result of people who both overstate and understate their viewing either by pushing people meter buttons when they are not actually watching TV, or by forgetting to push them when the are watching.
The findings are the first results to be released by Nielsen from a somewhat controversial research initiative it began last year, and which it will continue conducting quarterly on an ongoing basis in order to better understand how people comply with the people meter ratings system, and more importantly, how Nielsen can take steps to improve that compliance via better coaching methods, and by focusing on the most problematic households.
The research is somewhat controversial, because it is being conducted on Nielsen's live "currency" sample, which raises the specter that it could influence how people in the sample actually watch television. The research method being used, involves Nielsen representatives calling ratings households on the phone while they are watching TV, and asking the person who answers the phone what they or other people in the household are watching at the time.
Nielsen has already gotten the blessing of key clients, as well as industry ratings watchdog the Media Rating Council, to conduct the research, but it is being conducted even as Nielsen conducts another, very different test on its live sample to measure their Internet usage alongside their TV viewing (MediaDailyNews April 28).
While there always is some concern when Nielsen conducts separate research on its live TV ratings sample, Nielsen executives said both the studies are important, prudent steps toward improving its ratings, and that they are carefully monitoring how it is affecting the quality of its national TV ratings.
"There is no perfect research tool, but we wanted to find out if there were ways to improve people's people meter performance," Pat McDonough, senior vice president of Planning Policy & Analysis at Nielsen told MDN during a telephone interview explaining why Nielsen embarked on the research.
Nielsen executives said the level of compliance among TV ratings households is consistent with earlier studies Nielsen conducted during the late 1980s when it first introduced people meters to replace its old paper diary and TV set meter system, and during the 1990s. The new research, like the older studies, found that, on average, about 10% of households inaccurately record their viewing via people meters - either by pushing buttons when they are not watching TV, or by not pushing them when they are watching. The net effect is an understatement of 8%, because more people forget to push the buttons than those who push them when they are not watching.
While that range is consistent with previous studies, Nielsen has begun drilling deeper into the behavior of its panelists to find out which ones and what types tend to be the worst offenders. And while the data is still limited, Nielsen's top researcher, Bruce Hoynoski said there appear to be no differences among people based on age or gender of the people in the households, but it has found that Hispanic households, and households that have four or more viewers present in the audience, tend to be the worst offenders. In fact, the more people present in the audience, the more likely it is that the ratings will be inaccurate.
"For one person in the audience the compliance was 93%. It fell to the high 80s when two person are present in the audience. It fell to the mid- to lower 80s with three person in the audience. And it fell into the 70s when you had four or more person in the audience," Hoynoski explained.
He said the insights will enable Nielsen researchers to better deploy their field staff to focus their coaching procedures or adapt them to deal with the most difficult households. So far, that appears to be Hispanics and large audience households, but he said future waves of the phone research could yield insights about other household types that could be addressed later.
The finding could be troubling for media planners and advertisers, because programming that attracts larger audiences - so-called "family-viewing" programming, or water cooler events like the Super Bowl or the Academy Awards - tend to be among the most valuable and expensive for advertisers to buy.