I Don't Think Duct Tape Will Work: Fixing the Nielsens

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Think Pieces | February 15, 2012 |


Dustin posted a great piece over on Uproxx about the sad state of the Nielsens and their eternal quest to convince advertisers to give money to television networks. As he notes, the famed 25,000 Nielsen households only amount to a two hundredth of a percent of American households. The difference between getting cancelled and getting six seasons and a movie only amounts to a few hundred households.

But the problem with such ratings goes a lot deeper than merely the sample size. Ask a pollster, and at face value that 25,000 is a fantastically high number. Typical sample sizes on political polls run to around a thousand or so. When you poll a hundred people in a proper representative sample, then polling a thousand people is going to give you far more accurate results. But jumping another order of magnitude to ten thousand doesn't actually tell you that much more. Depending on a lot of statistical factors that are less relevant than the general conclusion, a thousand people is generally more than enough to get to the point that your error margins due to sample size are going to get washed out by the error margins due to other far less controllable factors like the representativeness of the sample.

It's the representativeness that kills a poll. It doesn't take a degree in statistics to appreciate that even if your margin of error is only one percent, if you're only polling people who live in cities, your poll's results probably aren't going to be that accurate if it's about something about which the urban/rural divide matters. The bottom line is that the people who are willing to fill out diaries or allow Nielsen boxes in their homes are not a representative slice of the American viewing public. So the problem isn't so much that "Community" is only getting a few hundred people out of the survey, it's that people who watch "Community" are less likely to be tracked by Nielsen in the first place.

To some degree, it's a point that becomes moot over the long run. As DVRs and simply watching video streaming via the Internet increasingly dominate television watching, the tracking problem disappears. But here's the catch that trips you up again. A hearty percentage of people reading this just mentally started protesting about the privacy implications. You, my dear readers, by being thoughtful intelligent individuals are far more likely than the average viewer to opt out of any such tracking if at all possible. And you are the same people who watch quality intelligent television. Think that the proportion of "Two and a Half Men" viewers who opt out would be comparable to the proportion of "Community" viewers?

It's funny though because the entire premise of television advertising is like a shell game that has gone on so long that it's completely immune to logic that is easily applied to other avenues of advertising. Quick, what's the difference between the banner ad to the right of this text that you're ignoring and the ad you ignore on your television while you go to the bathroom? The only difference is that the advertiser knows nobody pays attention to the banner ad since clicks and such can be directly tracked. Why is a television ad that no one can click on worth a thousand times the money per view than an web ad that no one clicks on by choice? Because sixty years ago someone managed to con advertisers into thinking that television ads were worth money, and they've been around so long now that their existence is impervious to logic. The more delightful example is online television. Why are there several times as many commercials in a televised episode of a show than the Hulu broadcast of that show? Just because.

And here we meander to the real punchline. Networks do not care about viewers. They care about money. Advertisers have been hooked into giving them money for high viewership. This does not mean that networks care about viewers by implication. It means that they care about viewership numbers. The nuance is that it is not in the interest of networks to fix the Nielsen ratings, to make them as accurate as possible. They don't care about fixing the game, they only care about winning the game.

The real question we end up at is not how to fix the Nielsens, but rather a much deeper problem. How do we make sure that quality is rewarded with money?

Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at You can email him here.

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