Changes at Nielsen: Rating Representation and Surveillance
Nielsen have been pretty active recently, with announcements, changes, and additions left, right, and center. I believe Ivan’s going to handle one of those possible changes/shakeups, so I’ll focus on three others.
Increase in the National TV Ratings Sample SizeThere’s the announcement that they’ll be tripling their TV ratings national sample size by 2011 (hence rising from 12,000 households with 35,000 people to 37,000 households with 100,000 people). Sam Ford over at the Convergence Culture Consortium blog discusses this, though more from me below.
Hey! NielsenThey also introduced a service called Hey! Nielsen, which is ostensibly a social networking and opinions site. CCC also beat us to the punch here, with a post from Eleanor Baird. She finds the site interesting in three ways, arguing that it signals:
- “a desire to work with fan groups and give them extra clout, something that I believe echoes a change in attitude in the industry as it tries to quantify things other than eyeballs to sell to advertisers”;
- “a move towards more diverse measurement from an online group”; and
- “an interesting move is that it is seeking to build a more direct, trusting relationship with an audience that probably has fought in the past to keep the shows they wanted on air because of low ratings”
Certainly, offering evidence of Baird’s first point, my quick browse through the site suggested a marked cult fan presence. Hey! Nielsen gives a score to shows that are being talked about, and the day I visited, Supernatural, Jericho, and Firefly easily topped the television scores.more below…However, I find myself really conflicted in evaluating Hey! Nielsen and the rise in the national sample together, since the cynic in me sees the national sample size as still way too little – 100,000 people out of a nation of 300 million is not the “democratic” representation that television likes us to convince us we have. But the cynic in me sees Hey! Nielsen as a crass ploy to convince people to come and give Nielsen free audience measurement labor/data. In other words, my inner cynic is now arguing with itself – Hey! Nielsen could represent an opening up of audience measurement techniques, so that more than just 1 in 3000 (or 1 in 3100 given population increase?) can “vote,” so if I’m castigating Nielsen for not doing enough on the national ratings measurement front, why am I not happy about Hey! Nielsen?
A lot of this makes me think of a neat quote from Henry Jenkins’ Convergence Culture, where Henry notes:
to be desired by the networks is to have your tastes commodified. On the one hand, to be commodified is to expand a group’s cultural visibility. Those groups that have no recognized economic value get ignored. That said, commodification is also a form of exploitation. Those groups that are commodified find themselves targeted more aggressively by marketers and often feel they have lost control over their own culture, since it is mass produced and mass marketed. One cannot help but have conflicted feelings because one doesn’t want to go unrepresented–but one doesn’t want to be exploited, either. (2006: 62-3)
Indeed. I don’t want to go unrepresented, but I also have real problems with the notion of my everyday viewing being recorded and registered, since I don’t know how that information might be used, not just against me and my desires for television, but against other people and their desires for television.
It’s a myth that every person’s vote counts equally to advertisers (those who ultimately make use of Nielsen’s metrics). Hey! Nielsen explains that the site isn’t “really ‘about us,’ it’s about you. You’re the reason The Nielsen Company, built this site and will continue to tweak and polish it based on your input.” Bullshit. “We” aren’t their customers – networks and advertisers are, so it’s for them. As much as they insist, therefore, that “the more connections you make to other users, the more interesting and useful recommendations you’ll pick up on all sorts of entertainment. You’ll be thanking us in no time,” the site’s there because the information can be sold. As Joseph Turow explains in his recent book Niche Envy, all these stats effectively allow networks and advertisers to direct content toward the audiences they want and away from the ones they don’t want. Turow quotes companies talking of “value-destroying customers,” and of how to get rid of the bad customers. Now, I know I’m one of the people the advertisers probably want to speak to: middle-class, White, college-educated, male, early 30s. But discriminatory systems shouldn’t be any less of a concern just because they discriminate in one’s favor. Hey! Nielsen records your birthdate, your gender, and your zip code. The latter of these may seem innocuous enough, but it allows socioeconomic psychographic profiling via databases constructed by the likes of Claritas (go here to see this in action). So they can correlate opinions to age, gender, geography, and (likely) socioeconomic status.
A couple of years back at the International Communication Association conference, I heard an excellent paper by Mark Andrejevic, about Television Without Pity providing cheap audience surveillance for networks. And Mark argues persuasively elsewhere about the dangers of learning to love surveillance, whether through reality television or through our online consumption. When we submit to surveillance willingly, either for entertainment’s sake, or because we feel we need to do so in order to get better treatment by businesses or the state, there are considerable ramifications for us and for society. So here’s the dilemma – how are we to feel about yielding to additional surveillance for the sake of representation when we know those metrics could be used to, for instance, help work out what wealthier viewers prefer, in order that working class viewers can be more effectively excluded from the audience?
I think the democratic/voting analogy provides an important distinction – when we vote, our ballot doesn’t contain our name, our gender, our income group (well – I suppose your riding can sometimes tell this, but…), or age on it. To add such information would make a mockery of the voting system. Yet this is how we’re required to vote for television.Any thoughts about this?
More Local People MetersThey also announced that, also by 2011, they hope/plan to have 56 television markets (covering about 70% of US households) relying on local people meters. While this may sound less of a big deal, LPMs instead of viewing diaries means an end to sweeps weeks, which are all about the diaries. Currently, Nielsen mails out the diaries to thousands more viewers than those in Nielsen’s national sample, in order to set local advertising rates. As most television viewers are no doubt aware, sweeps weeks mean all sorts of ploys and games to artificially inflate a show’s audience. On sitcoms and dramas, this means deaths, weddings, guests, and so forth. On news, it often means even more grisly news, six part series on the history of the bikini, and other heightened forms of infotainment. So what would television be like without the sweeps?
Such a change could really change the flow of the broadcast year, which right now traditionally uses the November sweeps to close out a primetime show for the year, the February sweeps to launch it again with a bang, and the May sweeps to end the season. Remove the imperative for such bangs, and what would we see?
Meanwhile, the rest of the year, local audiences will now be measured too. Networks simply won’t be able to provide big bangs every week for every show, so might we see a little calming down in shows? Part of me thinks it would be fascinating to count the number of primetime show character deaths and marriages over the next few years to see if there’s a change. Or do we have a situation where the many year-old system has become so sunken into the television industry’s bones that we’ll see them continuing business as usual? My family once had a potted plant in the dining room that my dog Shadow loved to walk under very slowly since its dangling leaves tickled her back, yet for years after we moved the plant, she’d still creep through that spot of the room. Will networks do the same (or, rather, the opposite of a creep) during what used to be the sweeps?Tags: ads, Nielsen, ratings, social networking sites, surveillance, sweeps