Nielsen Endorses Site Awarding Cash Prizes For Correctly Guessing TV Ratings

One of the most surprising developments of the new prime-time season isn't taking place on television. It's being played out on the Internet--literally: A new fantasy-based Internet game offering as much as $100,000 in cash to people who correctly guess the Nielsen ratings outcome of the 2007-08 network television season. What makes the Web interesting is that it was launched by a major cable TV network--NBC Universal's Bravo channel--and has been sanctioned by Nielsen, although some people think it has the potential to impact the way people, including Nielsen households, watch television.

The game, which is not unlike the popular movie industry fantasy game Hollywood Stock Exchange, was first written about by TV Board columnist Lydia Loizides, but in a post on today's TV Board, another columnist, Nielsen rival and acknowledged contest whiz Frank Maggio, makes the case for why the game could, intentionally or unintentionally, influence Nielsen households by offering them the chance to win cash prizes based on the results of Nielsen's ratings.



"I think this game will draw Nielsen members like moths to a cathode ray tube," Maggio asserts in today's column. Maggio--who owns erinMedia and has a pending federal antitrust suit claiming Nielsen's practices have stifled him from competing in the business--is a Florida real estate tycoon who made his first millions when, as a young Procter & Gamble sales manager, he "cracked the code" on a Beatrice consumer promotion contest winning $21 million in cash prizes.

Maggio claims that the contribution of each of the 10,000 households in Nielsen's national TV ratings sample is worth about $5.6 million in annual advertising revenues to the TV industry, and that even if only a few of their viewing habits are impacted by, it could have a profound impact on the season's ratings.

Nielsen executives disagree, asserting that they vetted the launch of the Web site with NBC Universal executives before it went live and determined it would have no impact on their ratings sample.

"We find that people watch what they really want to watch," said Nielsen spokesman Gary Holmes, adding that Nielsen's electronic people meters "catch what people are actually watching."

Nielsen has long-standing "anti-hyping" rules that forbid stations and networks from running contests, sweepstakes and promotions that encourage viewers to watch their channels during measurement periods for fear that they might impact ratings results. The penalty for violating Nielsen's anti-hyping rules typically includes withholding the ratings of an offending station or network.

Holmes says Nielsen determined that does not violate those rules because it is not specifically designed to influence the outcome of TV ratings. "They are not hyping," Holmes said of the Bravo Web site.

In fact, since users would only profit from influencing the results of broadcast network programs (the game does not include any cable programming), any impact theoretically would have a deleterious impact on cable networks like Bravo by encouraging viewers to spend more time thinking about--or actually watching--network shows at stake in the contest.

"It is certainly something to keep an eye on, but at this point, we don't think it's a problem."

But the emergence of the Web sites like have the potential to change the way consumers interact with TV programs, as well as the TV ratings process. Interestingly, Nielsen has launched its own social community site--Hey! is designed to monitor and collect information about what people think about TV, movies, music and various performers and personalities. If successful, Nielsen has plans to incorporate the information gathered from Hey! Nielsen as a new entertainment industry metric, and is already thinking about how to utilize its "Hey! Nielsen Scores" in conjunction with its entertainment industry trade publications like Billboard and The Hollywood Reporter. But the process also raises questions about how the creation of a Web site that is designed to get people to talk about and exchange information about entertainment content, including TV shows, might also impact the way they watch them.

Hey! Nielsen, which launched its public beta on Sept. 24, currently has 5,435 members. currently has more 16,000 players.'s eligibility rules prohibit employees of NBC Universal, Bravo and parent General Electric Co. from entering, but say nothing about Nielsen households or employees.

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