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Tuned In: Stint as Nielsen viewer shows flaws in system

Thursday, November 18, 1999

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

Now I get it. For years TV station executives have told me about the inaccuracy of ratings collected by Nielsen Media Research. I've heard talk of how Nielsen doesn't distribute the diaries fairly, about how the system is flawed, but the industry lives with it because it's the only system they have. Even Nielsen says what it provides is an estimate.

I saw first-hand how the ratings collection process works when I fulfilled a lifelong dream of becoming a Nielsen family during the October ratings period.

My colleague Larry Walsh received a diary from Nielsen and handed it off to me to record my daily viewing choices Oct. 21 through Oct. 27. That alone shows a flaw in the system. I'm sure I'm not the first person to fill out a diary sent to someone else. Friends selected by Nielsen have asked for input about what they should say they watched.

We've become such a media-savvy culture, we know how the ratings work. Most viewers have had a favorite show canceled in the past and they'd love the opportunity to try to keep a current favorite on the air. Filling out a Nielsen diary is one way to do it.

Nielsen Media Research measures television viewing on a daily basis in Pittsburgh using meters, devices hooked to televisions in peoples' homes that collect data about what they are watching. But diaries are used to collect demographic details about what kind of people are watching during February, May, July and November. October and January constitute two supplemental sweeps periods when Pittsburgh viewership is measured via diaries. (I was one of 1,867 people surveyed in the Pittsburgh market in October.)

The first couple of pages of the Nielsen diary ask for age, gender, race, how many hours a week you work, how many TV sets are in your home, whether or not you're connected to cable or a satellite dish, which premium cable channels you subscribe to and whether your TV is connected to a VCR.

Nielsen also asks whether the person filling out the diary or anyone living in the home is employed by a TV or radio station, cable or satellite company to weed out any diaries that might skew the survey in favor of a particular channel.

So far, so good. But on the next page Nielsen started asking too much of my time. They wanted me to list every TV station and channel I receive. Since I have cable and digital cable that would take forever. I already wrote down the name of my cable system; why do they need me to list 150 channels, especially when I have to write down the name of every channel I watch in the daily viewing log?

For filling out the book Nielsen sent Larry $1 (it went into the office candy fund), but that's not enough for anyone to waste time writing down every channel his or her home receives.

The rest of the ratings diary includes the daily logs where I wrote in what channel I watched and the name of the program. It's easy enough, but you have to be diligent about it. I'm sure some people come to the end of the week and realize they've written down nothing and they try to reconstruct what they watched. Or maybe they write down names of shows they like, even if they didn't watch them.

The log pages look identical, which is another problem. Each page is either 5 a.m. to 4 p.m. or 5 p.m. to 4 a.m. with no differentiation in the look of the page, whether it's for morning or afternoon, aside from labels at the top. It's easy to get confused.

One day I accidentally skipped a page, wrote in what I watched that morning before realizing I was writing on a prime-time page. I had to go back and scribble out my errors and make corrections. If you're not all that interested in TV, would you really bother to ensure the accuracy of your Nielsen diary?

At the end of the booklet there's space to write in programs you've taped and a spot to jot down comments about TV in general, though I wonder if that ever gets read.

As someone who loves TV and worries about good shows being canceled before their time, it was satisfying to make my preferences known. But being a Nielsen family also showed the cracks in the system and how unreliable it has the potential to be.

If you want to know what I watched and recorded in my diary, visit the bulletin board Web site listed in italics at the end of this column for a complete accounting.

WQED'S NEW SHOW: WQED will reveal the anchors for its nightly newsmagazine at the station's board meeting this morning.

"Black Horizons" host Chris Moore, KDKA-TV's Stacy Smith and singer/songwriter Carol Lee Espy are expected to be the primary on-air talent for the show, which will debut early in 2000.

Rob Owen can be reached at 412-263-2582 or rowen@post-gazette.com. Post questions or comments about TV to www.post-gazette.com/tv under PG Online Talk.

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