Saving Face At Nielsen

  • by , Featured Contributor, March 4, 2011

For those of us who are in the business of television, Nielsen is, for better or for worse, a large part of our daily lives.  We recite their ratings as if it were some sort of gospel -- although you'd be hard-pressed to find many devout believers in the Holy Methodology these days.  We're more an industry full of agnostics : we'll attend your church because it's where we were raised, but we're really not sure that we totally believe the scripture.

So we go searching for the better answer.  Set-top boxes will no doubt provide that one day, depending upon how quickly and how well we can get the sources to coalesce into one standard currency.  This is not to suggest that one has to dominate, "Highlander"-style, where there can be only One.  Perhaps instead it should be looked at as more of the Euro model:many very individual countries, one currency.

Realistically, that day is probably much further off than a 3D penetration of 10% or a lucid Charlie Sheen moment.  So until then, we need to look at improving the current system.  Because let's face it, it's becoming increasingly difficult to convince the media-savvy, fully connected Internet generation that 20,000 homes are the best statistical basis we have as the lifeblood metric of our multi-billion-dollar industry.



I think I may know of the one guy who would be able to repair Nielsen - not only that, but redefine it with numbers that would satisfy even the most skeptical critic who's still smarting over the premature cancellation of "Freaks and Geeks."

Draft Mark Zuckerberg.

I don't know how he'll fix Nielsen.  I don't have that sort of social media imagination.  And make no mistake; today's TV business is indeed a social medium.  And as true interactive television starts to become more commonplace and reaches the tipping point, the lines between TV and social media will not only blur, they'll intersect. 

So no, I won't tell him how to do it.  I wouldn't know how. 

But I'll bet he probably will be able to come up with something.  In seven short years, he (and his Friends) have made Facebook a multi-billion-dollar company.  One that, it's been noted, were it a country,  would have the third largest population of any country on Earth: there are 600 million active Facebook "citizens.".

Contrast that with those 20,000 homes in the active Nielsen panel.  That's about as many people who live in West Milford, N.J. (a town so remote and wooded that it once was safely home to the drive-through safari park called "Jungle Habitat").  It's twice as many people who live in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y. - Zuckerberg's hometown.

Nielsen is no stranger to admitting that they've had a few struggles with some methodology lately (look no further than the latest version of their "3 Screen" report, from 2nd Quarter 2010).  And again, we're nowhere near to blessing set-top-box data as the industry's currency.  But let's face it, for a business that has some of the quickest advancements in consumer technology on the planet, we're loath to support any sort of substantial change to our measurement currency.  The industry's adoption of C3, for the short amount of time it was being discussed and implemented, was nothing short of miraculous.

I say all this in the hopes that Nielsen succeeds.  Granted, they're a monolithic company with a voracious appetite for competing metric services, but in the end they are the one brand that is synonymous with traditional television.  They have allowed our industry to thrive.  I am personally a fan of Nielsen (not in a Facebook way, though.  Not yet, anyway.)

But they need change.  They have a ton of dedicated, smart people working for them, but it's time to shake up their vision of television.  It wouldn't even take a Harvard grad to do it for them. Mark (wink, wink), I'll bet if you were to ask a room full of media folks if they went to Harvard, you'd be hard-pressed to get anyone to raise their hand.  Media doesn't work well when it's covered by ivy, anyway.

Facebook users, and all of those demographics that they bring with them, certainly aren't shy in sharing their opinions -- and frequently do so about that underserved medium of television.  In addition, not a week goes by without some sort of privacy scare about Facebook running around the site like wildfire.  This might be a way to corral that anxiety. Leverage the opt-in, "your opinion matters" social ego of Facebook users for a guarantee of heightened security for their profile for participation in this new model, and you might just be on your way to a win-win for everybody. 

Make no mistake. I'm not advocating scrapping Nielsen and making it into one big Facebook group.  No, this should take that sort of Facebookian, social-thinking approach to what should probably remain substantially an offline Nielsen model. 

We need a new approach to tapping into the media choices of consumers, and a new way to monetize the audience of a very fast-moving traditional medium that's becoming less and less traditional every day.

I'm sure that you might have a few ideas there, Mr. Zuckerberg.

So come on over, Mark.  Watch some TV with us.  We'll bring the pizza; you bring some of your Facebook magic.  Nielsen could certainly use that status update.

3 comments about "Saving Face At Nielsen".
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  1. John Grono from GAP Research, March 4, 2011 at 7:06 p.m.

    Not a bd idea Don - if what you want to measure is the popularity of programmes.

    Television ratings services around the world measure television usage expressed as average audience. These are radically different things. When I "buy" an audience I want to know the "size" of that audience to weigh that against the cost. However, I'd sure like to factor in the "likeability" of a programme and Facebook seems a great place to start. Having these two metrics sittimg side-by-side is a great idea. Bring it on!

  2. Andrew Crowley from ggiyt, March 4, 2011 at 8:14 p.m.

    quite a few startup are already doing this. has a 137 page patent on it.

  3. Jim Dennison from DigitalMediaMeasures, March 9, 2011 at 8:22 a.m.

    This article is a testament to how little people know about ratings, sampling, and measurement -- whether it's Nielsen samples or STB data. Despite what the under 30 crowd might think, there are huge parts of the television audience that are not Facebook users. If the goal is to measure how much TV Facebook users watch, then Facebook is a viable source for that information, and probably an app could be, or is being, developed that bridges digital TV data to Facebook profiles. We know there are no privacy considerations that would prevent Facebook from being a part of this. But if the goal is to measure all of the TV audience, then the data sets need to include at least a sample of all types of viewers and devices. Zuckerberg doing better than Nielsen at TV measurement is as unlikely as Nielsen doing better than Zuckerberg at social media.

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