What we watch on television is shaped in no small part by the company that provides audience ratings to networks and advertisers. Nielsen has been around for years. Back in the 50’s my father-in-law had a job of going door to door for Nielsen and trying to convince people fill out a diary of every radio station they listened to all hours of the day and night. For literally decades, there were four major ratings periods in the year, called “sweeps.” During sweeps, local broadcast outlets turn up the volume on advertising and promotion because every viewer or listener they attract means higher ratings and of course higher revenue.
So if you think about it, the higher the rating, the higher the revenue, the more of that kind of program is going to be produced. Follow the money as they say. For most of the history of broadcasting, the paper diaries that people filled out were the ratings bible. In the entire United States, just a few thousand households filled out they diaries. They were called Nielsen Families and their mark in a show could have an outsized impact on the fortunes of a show. Statistically, one family could equal tens of thousands of homes. And honestly, no one outside of Nielsen really believed the Nielsen Familes were accurate, but because there was no real viable alternative, the system continued.
Today, technology has taken out a lot of the uncertainty. There are still Nielsen Families but now there’s a box on their televisions and they have to log in whenever they come in to watch a program. And the result, instead of quarterly, are available overnight in most major markets and for the national networks. But those Nielsen Families still have tons of power. Essentially, they are the reason Super Bowl ads cost so much.
Recently, I got the chance to join this prestigious group. It started with a letter and ended with a delivery of orchids. Watch how far Nielsen goes to convince our family.