yourlibrarian: Buffy on the phone (BUF-WorkingGirl: eyesthatslay)
[personal profile] yourlibrarian posting in [community profile] sim_studies
When reporting on Dollhouse's renewal, Maureen Ryan asked Could the tyranny of the Nielsen overnight ratings be over?. From what I can tell, at least that method has some accuracy. After participating in their sweeps week diary surveys, I'm really appalled that so many people's jobs depend on this sort of information gathering.

They are quite organized, I'll say that for them. We were contacted four times, once by postcard to say they'd be calling, once by a call, another postcard to remind us to use the time diaries, and another call to remind us to send them in. What I think they could use some of this time and staff to do, however, is to enter information for the users so that there is less left to chance.

For example, Mike and I are both college-educated, relatively intelligent people. And we are also not as frenetically busy as some of our peers who must juggle commutes, kids, pets, and parents, none of which we have, along with long work hours. Yet I definitely think the diary surveys could be easier, less prone to error, and less dependent on happenstance.

1) There is a lot to fill out: Nielsen provides a lot of instruction in the booklets, as well as a website to answer questions ( as well as an 800 number to call. So in terms of trouble doing the diaries, participants have plenty of support. It is, however, time consuming. The one part of this that I just boggle at was here:

Yes, that's right, they want you to list ALL the channels you receive. Now if you just get broadcast signals this is easy enough (assuming you remember all their call letters, which I certainly don't). But some people receive hundreds of channels on their satellite or TV service. You are allowed to attach a pre-printed list of channels (which you'd still have to go find) but are warned to make sure that the numbers are current and to mark out any you don't, personally get. Also, this list could get quite bulky, yet the diaries are supposed to simply be sealed shut and dropped in the mail and are just not designed for attachments.

2) Lack of space/readability: I am personally glad my job isn't to read and transcribe the diaries that come in, but how much do you want to bet the people who do so aren't that invested in their job and errors galore result? Take a look at what they're reading:

Yes, the squiggly line shows how much time was spent on each show, marked by the quarter hours. That's a symbol of precision there, all right. It makes me wonder how they're going to interpret the 2 plus hours I was rewatching SPN because I was writing up my meta on the finale? These boxes are not large, and I can tell you that the "sample" writing is very clear compared to what I'm actually able to cram into those lines. Since we view 90% or more of our TV through the DVR, we have to fill in the blue boxes with the time that a show was originally recorded. You try filling in "10:30 PM" in one of those clearly. Also, try not making a mistake. You could write in pencil but it doesn't show up well and you'd still have to try to erase an error. These pages are thin and you could easily tear them.

3) Responsibility: I would be willing to bet women are the people most likely to fill these things out, and are recording the viewing of all other household members. I have no data at all to support this, but I suspect my household is not overwhelmingly different from that of others in this regard. Along with family viewers you're supposed to include data on visitors who were watching or listening while in the house. This is a lot of work, and I'm sure in some cases viewing isn't even getting reported because the person responsible for recording doesn't know something's being watched. I bet the ratings for Playboy and Spice are abysmal compared to actual viewership.

It is very easy to fill in information for stuff you view repeatedly. For us, for example, this is the Daily Show and the Colbert Report. We DVR it, so we still have to verify the date, but the rest of the info is easy. The random view is a lot harder. Mike was watching hockey and had to go back and look up information online about the game he'd forgotten to record, because he actually watched that live. We also use the Weatherscan channel a lot, either while viewing is paused, or to quickly check the temperature or forecast. We've tried to remember to record it but frequently it's only for a few minutes, nowhere near the quarter-hour. I'm pretty sure we've turned to it twice as often as it's going to show up in the diaries.

4) Timeliness: It is easy to fall behind on recording stuff. Also, despite the prompting, I'm sure a lot of people take several days to drop diaries in the mail, rather than doing so immediately on the Friday it's due.

5) Fragility: These diaries are made of newsprint, not even thick bond paper or hard covers. Yet we're supposed to just use the provided "moisten" seal and drop them in the mail. Let's not forget the attachment for the viewing channels or the attachments people may enclose to vent about TV (yes, you're encouraged to do so). I would be willing to bet a lot of diaries get damaged, given the state of magazines I have received, and some probably never even arrive.

6) Payment: We were sent $5 in $1 bills. I noticed in this guy's write-up that his family got $30 for their diaries. Bzuh? That's a huge difference, how does Nielsen determine what to send?

In short, this system is woefully outdated for today's viewing. There is too much to include so spaces are not large. Most households these days have cable, meaning dozens of channels. Household members tend to be more scattered and isolated than in the days of the single living room set. There are also many more household TVs and you're supposed to have a diary for each one, each of which needs certain data filled out in it. People are also busier than ever. I am just boggled that this antiquated system is what produces sweeps week numbers. It may have worked in 1965. It's a terrible system for today.

Why doesn't Nielsen gather more of this information on the phone? Why not send pre-printed, pre-prepared diaries that are larger, sturdier and already have information filled in on family members, and stations? Why not do ticky boxes for each segment viewed? And if you read the comments on that guy's post that I linked above, the problem with sampling is a serious issue. For example, these diaries were sent to us because Mike is in the phone book. It was not sent to us both, but to him because he's the name on the phone account. And obviously Nielsen needed our number to call us. There's a huge number of people these days who no longer on a landline, most of them young. Who still has landlines, answers all calls, and likely has the time to fill out Nielsen diaries? Old folks. A study I wrote about a few months ago, where they actually followed people through their day, confirmed that older people do watch the most TV and younger people the least. But I am very sure that they are being over represented in these surveys, and so are their viewing choices. Nielsen really needs to expand their set-box sample, gather all data from TiVo and DVR services to include a measure of real numbers in their reporting, and start factoring in online viewing which is apparently booming among middle-aged Americans and making Hulu the second most viewed video site online.

I think networks know this, and are considering other numbers. As FOX stated here regarding Dollhouse , ""The DVR numbers are a marker that audiences want to watch something," he explained, adding that "Dollhouse" got progressively better DVR ratings each week."" Those are real viewers making real choices about their regular viewing habits, not responding to TV's stunt programming which, in our case, didn't even include the finales of our regularly watched shows.

However, according to Nielsen's latest release, hardly anyone's watching TV on a DVR or the Internet.


Social Informatics and Media Studies

April 2010

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