Confessions of a Nielsen Household

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Dare I admit? I was a Nielsen household. For two years running, I did exactly as contributing editor Michael J. Weiss describes in this month's cover story, “The Trouble with Sweeps.� I filled out Nielsen Media Research's paper diaries, dutifully recording my TV viewing habits in a given week. Or, to be more accurate, dutifully trying to record the TV shows I “watched.� But as Weiss says, the paper-diary method is antiquated. “Few viewers watch a program from the first commercial to final credit, and some diary families can't or won't write fast enough to reflect their twitchy, channel-surfing habits,� he points out.

I confess, I'm the latter. Nielsen's diaries divide an hour's worth of viewing into four 15-minute time blocks, under the impression, apparently, that viewers tend to watch at least a quarter of an hour of any given show. That's a misplaced assumption, considering that I'm just as quick with the remote as any of my stereotypical male counterparts. On any given morning, in one 15-minute Nielsen time block, I've typically surfed through four major networks, plus CNBC. That averages out to 3 minutes per station. Pathetic but true. So how did I account for such channel-surfing in the diary? I pretended to watch a half-hour of morning TV instead of 15 minutes, and knocked out the two stations I watched least. As far as Nielsen was concerned, I tuned into 15 minutes of ABC's Good Morning America and another 15 minutes of CNBC's Squawk Box. Too bad it wasn't entirely true.

Then there are the Nielsen households who wait until the end of the week to fill the diary, and end up jotting down whatever shows they recall watching. Okay, so I didn't do that — but I also didn't jot down everything. Does anyone really care that at 5 a.m. one morning my eyes were glued to Suzanne Somers and Patrick Duffy explaining what muscles the Torso Track targets? It's not as if I was really watching; I was simply too low on caffeine to begin my remote-control-pressing exercises.

In our cover story, Weiss details the problems with the current process of TV audience measurement, and the challenges that alternative methods face. It's not necessarily a new problem, but it's one that becomes more critical with each selling period, as the Web and wireless technology create channel options to go with our seemingly infinitely divisible spans of attention. The business proverb goes, “You can only manage what you can measure.� The question then must be: Is TV unmanageable?

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