Nielsen Probes Viewers' Minds: Finds They Are Distracted By Screens, May Not Comply With People Meters

In a potentially alarming early warning signal for TV’s national advertising currency, an advanced neuroscientific study on the impact that “second screens” and other distractions have on people’s ability to view and engage with television found that the presence of a second screen might also impact the way Nielsen panelists respond to people-meter prompts.

The study -- which is part of an ongoing series of research commissioned by the Council for Research Excellence to understand the nature of watching TV in the current viewing environment -- was conducted by Nielsen Consumer Neuro, which utilizes a variety of biometric measurement techniques to understand people’s conscious and unconscious interaction with media.

The findings of the study (see related story with detailed coverage here), dubbed “The Mind of the Viewer,” were described as preliminary, especially the part testing response to people-meter prompts, but it suggested that the kinds of media distractions impacting the way people consume media may also be impacting the way the industry measures how people consume media.

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“We live in the age of distraction,” Carl Marci, chief neuroscientist at Nielsen, remarked, adding: “People make interesting choices with technology.”

When it comes to interacting with people meters -- the technology that is the basis for producing national TV’s advertising currency, Nielsen national TV ratings -- 25% of Nielsen people-meter panelists participating in the study did not respond to their prompts because they were looking at a second screen when the meter prompted them with a light.

Marci cautioned that the findings were “not conclusive” and based on a very small sample, but they are the first scientifically objective glimpse of the impact of second screens on Nielsen’s core TV research methodology.

The people-meter findings were based on data from only 12 participants in a laboratory study measuring people’s conscious and unconscious interactions with TV in a variety of situations -- solo viewing without a second screen present, co-viewing without a second screen present, solo viewing with a second screen present and co-viewing with a second-screen present.

The lab study utilized state-of-the-art biometric technology used by Nielsen Consumer Neuro, including eye-tracking to see where respondents’ eyes were fixated. Seven of the 12 Nielsen people-meter panelists tested responded correctly when the people-meter prompt came on. Five did not. Three of those five were fixated on their second screens at the time.

As preliminary as that finding might be, it is significant because one of the chief goals of the CRE is to conduct research on how to improve media measurement, especially in the way consumers experience and interact with media changes. The CRE, which was created a decade ago by a grant from Nielsen as part of its promise to Congress to fund independent research on media measurement methodologies, has engaged in a wide variety of studies since its inception. And while it is funded by Nielsen, its committees operate independent of Nielsen.

In the case of the “Mind of the Viewer” study, it commissioned a unit of Nielsen to conduct it. The CRE said the data is still being analyzed and plans to share more detailed findings of the study in future presentations, but based on the research presented by Nielsen’s Marci in New York Thursday, distractions are playing a significant role in the way people interact with TV -- both programming and advertising content.

He said it’s not a black-and-white situation, and that in some cases things that might seem like a distraction -- including co-viewing and even second screens -- can enhance engagement with the way people watch TV, triggering emotional responses, and even contributing to conversations about what people are watching on the screen.

“This is not an all or nothing situation,” Marci explained, adding: “The assumption is that people are either 100% glued to the TV watching continuously, or they’re watching their second screen and nothing is getting through at all. Clearly, we are seeing a lot of shades of grey.”

The CRE described the research as a “benchmark” study in order to conduct additional research in the future to understand the impact technology and lifestyles are having on consumer’s viewing behaviors.

The first phase was an entirely “curated” experience conducted in a laboratory setting. The next phase will measure a more “natural” viewing experience in the lab. The final phase will measure it in people’s homes.

The first phase found that attention to advertising content actually increased from 15% in a solo viewing environment to 20% in a co-viewing situation. Emotional engagement with ads also increased as a result of conversations in co-viewing situations.

However, when second screens were present, attention and engagement to advertising and programming content went down.

“We see there is a bit of a trade-off,” Marci concluded.

6 comments about "Nielsen Probes Viewers' Minds: Finds They Are Distracted By Screens, May Not Comply With People Meters".
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  1. Linda Moskal from WNPV Radio, September 9, 2016 at 11:02 a.m.

    According to this study, I am not alone in being distracted from the program I am "watching" when there is a crawl at the bottom of the screen!  

  2. Richard Zackon from Council for Research Excellence, September 12, 2016 at 3:47 p.m.

    We appreciate MediaPost reporting on the work Nielsen Consumer Neuroscience is conducting for the Council for Research Excellence. Neuroscience promises to help us understand audiences and improve their measurement and that promise appears to be coming sooner than we may have once thought.


    Despite the headline and tone of the article, the preliminary results of the CRE study have not set off any alarm bells about the current compliance of the Nielsen People Meter panel. Let’s not draw overly bold inferences based upon the behavior of 12 individuals in a lab setting. The pilot study was not designed to gauge the compliance of panelists. The MRC has long monitored button-pushing compliance and its careful audits are not limited to 12 individuals in a lab tested one time at minute 42 of a 45 minute session.


    The purpose of the CRE neuro study is to help inform the development of new technologies and metrics used to capture viewing behavior. More specifically, results from the research are intended to provide insight into how the proliferation of multi-platform devices impact what the future definition of engagement might be


    As part of this, we shared preliminary results of one piece of a pilot study looking at button pushing behavior of people meter panelists so as to inform future instruction to panelists. Let’s not confuse pilot results with results from a valid and reliable study.

  3. Joe Mandese from MediaPost, September 12, 2016 at 5:07 p.m.

    @Richard Zackon: MediaPost appreciates the opportunity to report on the work Nielsen Consumer Neuroscience is conducting for the Council for Research Excellence. It seems to us to be very important research for the entire industry, and we published not one, but two stories (the one you are commenting on here, and one by Wayne Friedman: http://www.mediapost.com/publications/article/284364/second-screens-other-viewers-distract-from-tv-ads.html ).




    I’m not sure what you mean by the headline or the tone of the story, but take exception with your implication that it somehow drew “overly bold inferences” or that the story implied it was in anyway conclusive.




    The story pointed out that the findings were based on a “very small sample,” and we even quoted Nielsen’s Dr. Carl Marci saying they were “not conclusive.”



    That is why we characterized it as a potentially alarming early warning signal for Nielsen's national TV currency, not something conclusive.

    Personally, I applaud the CRE and Nielsen for conducting this research and sharing it publicly, but if you share research finding that 25% of people meter panelists did not respond to their prompts because they were looking at a second screen, we consider that news, even if it isn't conclusive.

    The whole point of the research was to find out how people's attention is changing as a result of new viewing behaviors, including second screens. Whatever the final conclusions end up being, it makes sense those changes would also be impacting a research methodology requiring people to pay attention.

  4. Nicholas Schiavone from Nicholas P. Schiavone, LLC, September 12, 2016 at 10:21 p.m.

    Dear Readers,

    I propose three cheers tonight.

    The first cheer is for Ed Papazian who writes the best comments in the media research landscape.  His words reflect knowledge, skill, experience and wisdom.  Thank you, Mr, Papazian, for "keeping the lights on" in the new dark ages of media research.  Tonight, I wish I could write as you do.

    The second cheer is for "validity" in research.  Would someone post a context-appropriate definition of validity, if one can be found in "bona fide" statistical research and social science text.  With age, I fear "good enough' may be "good enough."  I am certain Nielsen knows the difference between a "pilot study" and a benchmark study.  I am also certain that MediaDailyNews is also cognizant of the critical distinction.

    The third cheer is for incisive, enterprising journalism.  In media, marketing and advertising research, it has been hard to compete with MediaPost for the past decade.  Sometimes to do the right things and to do things one has to get one's hand dirty in a valid and reliable kind of way.

    Onward and upward all.  

    Peace be with you,
    Nicholas P. Schiavone


  5. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, September 13, 2016 at 8:57 a.m.

    Thanks for that nice comment, Nick. Coming from one who has been involved in media research as long as you have I appreciate it.

  6. Nicholas Schiavone from Nicholas P. Schiavone, LLC replied, September 13, 2016 at 11:40 a.m.

    Dear Ed, As you well know, experience can be quite the teacher. And I have learned delightful and painful lessons from that experience and from distinguished mentors like you, who have no idea how far their positive influence extends. Permit me to underscore, that like a brilliant constellation of stars in the heavens, you bring to bear so much ... knowledge, skill, experience, wisdom, articulateness ... and just the right attitude. For me, your writing always brings to mind Peter Drucker who urged us long ago to do the right things and do things right. Thank you for sharing your gifts for so long, so well. Gratefully, Nick

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