Welcome to the Nielsen Family - and 1960

This post is more than 2 years old.

Sorry folks - slow blog week. A few weeks ago I got a letter saying our household had been selected to be a Nielsen Family. For my readers who are international, this is a private company that for half a century now has been surveying the American public and what TV shows they watch. I've never known anyone who was part of the system, so to be honest, I thought it was kind of cool to be selected. About a week or so I got a small package from them and then promptly forgot about it. I just opened it now and - wow - talk about a company living in the past.

First - this is what came in the package:

I'll answer the question I know people are asking first. Yes, that's money. Real money. Five bucks. Kinda nice I suppose. They are definitely selling their research for quite a bit more than that.

But forget about that - check out that diary. Opening it up you've first got a multi-page survey about the TVs in your home. Apparently this diary is just for one week. I find it hard to believe they would ask you to fill that out every week. Sure - people get new TVs and get rid of TVs, but nothing in the documentation seems to imply that you can skip answering that portion after the first week. Oh - and they also ask you to name your local stations. Like that isn't publicly available information.

First strike.

Now check out the actual diary.

Well, to be clear, that's just the sample page. There's about 20 more pages of graphs like that. Insane. I can't believe anyone who has any life at all would actually fill this stuff out. Note it mentions VCR or DVD, but not DVR. (Although the initial survey does ask if you have a DVR.)

But wait - letter mentioned a web site - let's check it out: http://tvdiary.nielsen.com/. Lots of documentation. But this is what scares me:

From here, you can:

Find detailed instructions on filling out the diary.
Find answers to Frequently Asked Questions.
Provide feedback and thoughts on your TV Diary experience.

What one item is missing from that list? Oh yeah - filling out a diary online. Yeah. Done. That five bucks is going to my next Starbucks.

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Archived Comments

Comment 1 by Ryan posted on 7/31/2013 at 1:11 AM

I got it a couple years ago.

Comment 2 by Raymond Camden posted on 7/31/2013 at 1:17 AM

Did you actually do it?

Comment 3 by Rick posted on 7/31/2013 at 1:27 AM

I got one from Arbitron (I think). They use a small pager-sized thing you clip on your belt that listens for encoded material in the TV/radio audio. You get one for each household member. I believe that it 'calls home' (maybe via your house wireless?) to upload viewing/listening info.

We declined because of wife's health issues. But they do have bonuses, etc for use.

Comment 4 by Raymond Camden posted on 7/31/2013 at 1:29 AM

Ok - that sounds both creepy and cool. I'd definitely do that.

Comment 5 by Nick Kwiatkowski posted on 7/31/2013 at 1:34 AM

I've been a Nielsen house about 4 times now. I see it as "voting" for my favorite shows, because that is how shows actually earn money (Advertisers pay for spots on TV shows based on the Nielsen rating of the previous days/weeks). There are three types of surveys they do :
- Real Time (based on a smart appliance you opt into. Think a Tivo or an STB that they give you). These are permanent installs and account for something like 5% of their ratings.
- Dailies / Overnights. They call a random sampling of people. These are given to the broadcasters very quickly to find how how their shows did. It accounts for something like 15 - 20% of the ratings.
- Weekly Diaries. This is what you got. They pay people some money (it ranges for $2 to $25, depending on how much they need your demographic and if you've done it before). They send out TONS of these and expect to get back a small portion. It's pretty labor intensive for you and them. Because they do account for DVRs (and starting soon, services like Netflix, Hulu and other streaming), this is the number advertisers really like to see. The more people watched the show, the higher the shows can demand for the ad spots, the more the show gets paid by advertisers. This number is also used during the "keep it on" or "cancel it" decision. They say that it is one of the more accurate surveys of what people are watching, and is supposed to be statistically sound (it's not for regional and local programming).

The reason why they don't do it online is because they are afraid that a majority of America can't get online (or won't). They know everybody can fill out the booklet and mail it back for free. They also don't want you to do it online AND fill out the book, as they will throw out the stats. It's screwy, but they want to make sure Grandma and the person on disability who only gets OTA channels are just as represented as you are. In reality, they are more represented since you didn't fill out the book :P

Comment 6 by James Edmunds posted on 7/31/2013 at 1:36 AM

I got one a few years ago, in a cold February. The only thing we watched on TV that week was Weather Channel, twice, for about three minutes each time. It was fun sending that bare but truthful diary back to them. We're pretty poor picking for the TV networks.

Comment 7 by Raymond Camden posted on 7/31/2013 at 1:39 AM

"The reason why they don't do it online is because they are afraid that a majority of America can't get online (or won't)." Really? Have they looked outside? This has a scammy sounding url (first one that came up in Google), but it says we are at 80%-sh online: http://www.internetworldsta....

Anyway... wish I could have gotten the smart appliance.

Comment 8 by Nick Kwiatkowski posted on 7/31/2013 at 1:42 AM

Rick, how long ago was that? I thought they stopped using those a while ago because they stopped working with the newer digital cable systems.

They worked by listening for a 2.2k and 6k (?) tone at the beginning of each program (usually during the TV rating logo) to identify what you were watching. Unfortunately, most cable systems have since switched to digital and compress the signal so much that those signals get thrown out. They are supposed simply record what you watch and then you send it back. They pull the info off the device, reset it and send it back out. Most people got those for a week or two at most.

Comment 9 by Rick posted on 7/31/2013 at 1:46 AM

They stopped by with a real person to explain the whole thing just a couple of weeks ago. We have DirecTV (just changed back to them from Xfinity). They didn't menion any problems with their product and our service.

Comment 10 by S. Wilson posted on 7/31/2013 at 2:21 AM

I get them every few years and I usually do them. I've gotten $5-30 for them, paid in advance. I figure they are nice enough to pay up front, I can at least do the survey - doesn't take me much time since I'm at work all day anyway so nothing to record LOL

@Nick great explanation for how it all works :-) Many many many many many years ago, I was one of those folks who called for the phone surveys (don't hate me!).

I wonder if another reason they don't want to have folks to do it online is they want people to fill out as they are watching, not at the end of the week where people might be more inclined to go "from memory" versus logging in for each and every show to record as it happens.

Comment 11 by Chad Gray posted on 7/31/2013 at 2:26 AM

I think i would be more apt to fill out the paper then use a website to post the data. Put the paper survey on the coffee table with a pen.

BUT I wonder how they get the hand written data into their computer system for analysis. :)

Comment 12 by Lola LB posted on 7/31/2013 at 2:19 PM

You forgot to account for the fact that people in rural areas tend to have sucky internet access. I know someone who lives in New Hampshire and has practically no reception.

And then, people in the inner cities more often than not will not have a computer. Sure, they can go to the library. But libraries can be seriously lacking in resources, have limited operating hours, or limit the time people can use these computers due to other people waiting to use these.

Comment 13 by Raymond Camden posted on 7/31/2013 at 3:01 PM

To be clear Lola - I'm fine with them sending the paper books - but to not *also* support online is a mistake to me.

Comment 14 by Dana K posted on 7/31/2013 at 6:24 PM

The entire architecture for tv & radio ratings lives in the past. There's been a few articles on how antiquated the system where they are just starting to use dvr statistics etc.

Comment 15 by Raymond Camden posted on 7/31/2013 at 6:26 PM

Speaking of the past - love your Gravatar, Dana. :)

Comment 16 by Dana K posted on 8/1/2013 at 5:01 PM

One of my favorites, thanks!

Comment 17 by Jim posted on 8/1/2013 at 10:11 PM

I used to work for a company that compiled statistics for visits to web pages. We partnered with the ISP's to put a box on their network that anonymized and captured the traffic. Then we would sell reports to companies as to what kind of people were visiting what web sites. No need for surveys or otherwise.

Nielsen Net Ratings does something similar as well as others. Eventually it will all be like this, but there are still too many people that watch OTA. Maybe in about another generation or so.

Comment 18 by Tom Kelleher posted on 8/2/2013 at 5:40 AM

When AC Nielsen died a couple of years ago, I wrote this blog piece (http://tomkelleher.wordpres.... Describes some of their technology and theory behind the scenes.

To answer Chad’s question about data entry, Nielsen continues to be cutting edge in regards to OCR (optical character recognition) technology. The 22,000 weekly paper diaries would be scanned, parsed and loaded in 5-6 minutes and that was 30 years ago. I should know, as one of my jobs there was “OCR Manager”.

Comment 19 by Raymond Camden posted on 8/2/2013 at 5:41 AM

30 years ago they were doing OCR? Damn - that is impressive. How accurate was it?

Comment 20 by Tom Kelleher posted on 8/2/2013 at 8:37 AM

It was very accurate (999 of every 1000 characters), but took a huge investment. Think of the cheap OCR functionality in every modern $100 home printer/scanner, but translated into a $100,000 device, the dedicated DEC PDP-11 mini, the OCR manager, 2 data correction clerks and 2 assembly language programmers. All running 3 shifts a day. The only significant difference between then and now, is that we only had to scan predefined checkboxes and the OCR font. Today, they are probably using the kind of technology that’s in modern ATMs, that can scan and translate a hand written deposited check in about one second.

There was a decimal error in my math. It probably takes them 6 hours, not 6 minutes, to scan the paper diaries, assuming they use only one scanner. But still impressive.

Comment 21 by Raymond Camden posted on 8/2/2013 at 3:29 PM

Nice. Thanks for sharing that Tom.

Comment 22 by lakawak posted on 5/6/2014 at 8:54 AM

It is always nice when some ignorant unemployed idiot with a blog thinks that they know everything and blasts a company who has made not only themselves very wealthy, but networks and advertisers as well with their knowledge of how to do things.

Filling things out online is much more easily manipulated and therefore the results would not be trusted as much. So the added time and expense to have a paper trial is more than made up for it in the added price they can charge for their clients.