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Remembering Winnetka Ratings Guru A.C. Nielsen Jr.

"If you can put a number on it," Arthur C. Nielsen Jr. said his father once told him, "then you know something."

Um, not exactly. But we'll quibble a little later. First, a tribute.

"It was a lesson the younger Nielsen - who died Monday at age 92 - never forgot," Scott Collins writes for the Los Angeles Times. "His lifelong efforts remade his father's once-obscure Chicago market research firm into a sprawling, worldwide measurement giant with a brand name that, in the U.S. at least, became a household synonym for television ratings.

"Today - even after his company has undergone ownership changes, not to mention weathered near-continuous industry complaints of supposedly flawed methodology - TV executives still arise before dawn to check out the Nielsens, foretelling the fate of their shows and their careers with each ratings point. In recent years, the company has expanded into measuring online traffic and other new media.

"Nielsen, who in 1984 retired from the company that now simply bears his surname, had been suffering from Parkinson's disease. He died in the Chicago suburb of Winnetka."


"Arthur Charles Nielsen Jr. was born in Winnetka on April 8, 1919, the oldest of five children of Arthur C. and Gertrude Nielsen the New York Times reports. "While an Army engineer he met Patricia McKnew and soon married her. He was a graduate of the University of Wisconsin.

"An avid athlete, Mr. Nielsen played competitive tennis until he was in his 80s and had the distinction of winning the United States Father-Son Doubles Championships with his father in 1946 and 1948. He later represented the United States in senior tennis tournaments. He also won Midwest-based father-son doubles championships with two sons, Arthur III and Chris."


"Although his father started the company, Nielsen worked for A.C. Nielsen his entire adult life after a stint in the army during in World War II," Gawker writes. "And while he didn't invent the television rating system (that honor again belonged to his father) he was savvy enough to turn it - and the company's many other endeavors - into profitable and powerful institutions that we still rely on today. He retired in 1983."


"Under Nielsen's guidance, the company his father founded known for its television ratings, had grown at the time of his retirement at age 65 from a small enterprise to world leadership in five businesses with 22,000 employees and operations in 25 countries" his apparent son and daughter-in-law write for Winnetka-Glencoe Patch.

"One of the first people to grasp the commercial potential of the computer, Nielsen had the company invest in the first general-purpose computer, the UNIVAC, and leadership in the use of computers was one of the keys to the company's success.

"Nielsen's acumen was recognized by other business leaders, who invited him to serve on the boards of more than 20 major corporations, including Walgreens, Motorola and the Harris Bank."


Perhaps Nielsen's greatest feat, though, was getting so many people to believe that his company's ratings system was meaningful. I remember learning in graduate school that Nielsen's methodology was basically a joke. I don't have time to go through my files and find the research, but let's take a quick spin around the Internet and see what we can find, shall we?

"There is some public critique regarding accuracy and potential bias within Nielsen's rating system," Wikipedia says. "In June 2006, however, Nielsen announced a plan to revamp its entire methodology to include all types of media viewing in its sample.

"Since viewers are aware of being part of the Nielsen sample, it can lead to response bias in recording and viewing habits. Audience counts gathered by the self-reporting diary methodology are sometimes higher than those gathered by the electronic meters which eliminate any response bias. This trend seems to be more common for news programming and popular prime time programming. Also, daytime viewing and late night viewing tend to be under-reported by the diary.

"Another criticism of the measuring system itself is that it fails the most important criterion of a sample: it is not random in the statistical sense of the word. A small fraction of the population is selected and only those that actually accept are used as the sample size."


"Here's where things get a bit weird," John Herrman writes for SplitSider. "The press and public is interested in knowing how many people watch a show, because it's the most obvious indicator of its success. This belief drives the way we think and talk about ratings. It also happens to be wrong.

"To be sure, networks are interested in knowing how many people watch their programming, and freely tout or play down Nielsen's wider audience measurements. But the numbers that networks and advertisers actually use - to sell ads, to set prices, and to decide on the fate of a show - are commercial ratings. In other words, advertisers don't care how many people are watching a show nearly as much as they care how many people are watching their ads. Nielsen provides this number, which takes into account everything from next-day DVR viewing to fast-forwarding through commercials. If every Nielsen Family watched a show the day after it aired but skipped through all its ads, that show would probably be canceled."


"Nielsen wants to use the People Meter to generate local ratings and eventually hopes to eliminate diaries in larger metro areas," Cecil Adams wrote in 2003. "Broadcasters have resisted the new system, though, because it's told them things they don't want to hear. When introduced experimentally in Boston in 2001, Local People Meters (LPMs) showed that cable viewing was higher and broadcast viewing lower than previously thought. More importantly, TV viewing overall was 8 percent lower than reported by the old system. Upon investigation, Nielsen concluded that half to two-thirds of the difference represented TVs that were on but unwatched."


Let's end on an upbeat note.

"Being a Nielsen household brought with it some nice perks," according to Crone and Bear It. "They actually paid us. We got a check several times a year for $50. Now, that's not alot of money, but every little bit helps. Plus, the folks at Nielsen were just super nice. Someone would visit occasionally to check the equipment and sometimes they would bring goodies along - a cheesecake or a nice apple pie. And the two times I had trouble with the equipment, the technicians rapidly appeared at my door and were always courteous and friendly."


Comments welcome.


Posted on October 6, 2011

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