Noodling Nielsen Ratings
“Congratulations! Your household has been selected to take part in a one week Nielsen TV Ratings viewing survey! In a few days you will receive a phone call from us to explain this exciting opportunity. It is very important that your household is included in our survey. For our survey to be accurate, all types of households need to be represented. We are not trying to sell anything and there is no cost to you…”
This was the message that arrived on the back of a postcard sent to me by Nielsen, a company that has produced surveys of Americans’ television use for as long as televisions have been a common technology in American homes.
The words “We are not trying to sell anything and there is no cost to you” were printed in bold, suggesting that they were very, very true and important. Reading them, I couldn’t stop myself from snorting in derision. The truth is that Nielsen is trying to sell things. That’s the entire purpose of the survey.
Certainly, Nielsen won’t directly ask the people contributing to its survey to buy anything. However, the main purpose of the Nielsen ratings is to provide information to corporations who intend to advertise their products on TV networks. The information Nielsen gathers is used to try to sell things to people, but Nielsen gets to say “We are not trying to sell you anything” because it’s their clients who are doing the selling
Nielsen presents its survey as something of great importance. Indeed, many apologists for the advertisement-centric system of corporate television argue that people who complete Nielsen surveys are doing some kind of public service by helping TV studios figure out how to make better television shows. However, Nielsen ratings aren’t really used to make television better for the people who watch it. They’re used to push TV producers and directors to create materials that keep the attention of narrow demographic segments of people that dull-minded corporate marketers, using questionable methods of their own, have come to believe are most likely to buy their products. It’s Nielsen ratings that led the Arts & Entertainment, Bravo, Discovery, and History channels to shift from platforms of education and cultural enrichment to reality TV and sensationalistic garbage.
Nielsen surveys don’t ask television viewers for their creative ideas and opinions. The surveys only measure what television shows people watch within a certain period of time, to enable Nielsen to make conclusions about how advertisers can best place their sales pitches in front of the desired target segments.
Nielsen’s postcard suggests I should be happy that my family will not have to pay any money for the privilege of completing its survey. In fact, people who take the Nielsen survey are performing a service for the Nielsen company, one that brings Nielsen a profit. If the people at Nielsen truly respected television viewers, they would pay people taking its survey, as a compensation for the inconvenience and invasion of privacy.
Looking at the Nielsen postcard, I asked myself, “What kind of idiot falls for this scheme?” Almost instantly, the answer came to me: The kind of idiot who actually enjoys the simple-minded dreck that dominates commercial television.