Nielsen Family

A letter showed up from Nielsen lately asking for an 18 – 34 year-old-male who’d be willing to take a survey.

We’ve gotten mail from Nielsen before, and it’s always handled carefully; ANYTHING to do with measuring TV ratings is thrown away immediately. We’ve always had at least one person in the house working at a TV station, so participating in ratings research would be a big no-no.

Not everybody takes it so seriously.

Twenty years ago there was a sticky problem here in Albany when the family of a local TV salesperson was selected to receive a Nielsen ratings diary. Thinking they could sway the survey results, her family dutifully reported that they watched WXXA 24-hours-a day. No, nothing suspicious about that.

Nielsen didn’t catch the problem, but there were rumors in town that something was screwy when the November 1997 ratings book came out. WRGB cried foul and an audit turned up the corrupted diary.

The whole thing was tossed out and recalculated. Oops.

According to Variety, a spokesman for Nielsen said it was, “The first time he can remember a local diary being contaminated to such an extent that it impacted the ratings and demographic results.” You’d think they might have caught such an egregious fraud.

In Albany, diaries are a thing of the past. This market is now measured by something called a “code-reader.” A device listens to the TV audio and records which station is being watched. Then, demographics are calculated based on viewer behavior collected in metered markets.

That may sound shaky, but it’s no worse than diaries. Think of the amount of influence those little books had. Untold millions were spent, businesses rose and fell, careers were made — or ruined.

Much of it was accurate, but the rest? It was what people claimed to watch, or thought they watched, or would want people to think they watched.

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