Skip to Content
Uncategorized

Television Industry Debates Which Viewers Count

Media scholars have long argued that the Nielsen ratings, the standard measurement in the television industry for viewership, do not so much monitor audiences as construct them. None of the technologies or techniques which Nielsen has developed would meet rigorous…

Media scholars have long argued that the Nielsen ratings, the standard measurement in the television industry for viewership, do not so much monitor audiences as construct them. None of the technologies or techniques which Nielsen has developed would meet rigorous social science standards for data collection. They always have built in biases which overcount groups valued by advertisers and undercount groups who are not seen as demographically desirable. Each time the ratings technology changes, there are abrupt adjustments in network programming to reflect where the new center of gravity is – from rural to urban, from older to younger viewers. That is why the attempt to introduce people meters, electronic devices which Nielsen claims are more accurate for monitoring what viewers actually watch, has become such a politically charged issue.

The New York Times recently ran a story describing the behind the scenes struggles over ratings technologies, a struggle which has aligned Rupert Murdoch and Fox, key Clinton advisors, Univision (the Spanish language cable network), and a range of civil rights groups against Nielsen. Tests of people meters in New York City found steep declines in ratings for series on UPN that are favored by black viewers, like “One on One” and “The Parkers.” Nielsen argues that these program’s viewership was overcounted by earlier techniques which involved self-reporting through diaries and their critics argue that they are being “undercounted” under the new technology. Fox is involved because as a fringe network, they had embraced minority-targeted programming as a way to build on underserved market shares.

All of this comes about at a time when there is almost no overlap in the lists of highest rated shows among African-Americans and White Americans, when the networks have made a renewed effort to expand minority presence in network programing, and when some series were showing signs of crossover appeal. Critics worry that a shift in the counting system now may discourage networks from continuing to pursue minority content.

Neilsen’s critics have launched a series of advertisements implicitly comparing this undercounting to what happened in Florida in 2000. “If Nielsen is the ballot box for viewers, then shouldn’t every vote count?” asked one advertisement. Part of what makes this such a hot issue is that Neilsen maintains more or less a monopoly on data about American television viewing and thus exerts a tremendous authority over programming decisions.

Deep Dive

Uncategorized

Our best illustrations of 2022

Our artists’ thought-provoking, playful creations bring our stories to life, often saying more with an image than words ever could.

How CRISPR is making farmed animals bigger, stronger, and healthier

These gene-edited fish, pigs, and other animals could soon be on the menu.

The Download: the Saudi sci-fi megacity, and sleeping babies’ brains

This is today’s edition of The Download, our weekday newsletter that provides a daily dose of what’s going on in the world of technology. These exclusive satellite images show Saudi Arabia’s sci-fi megacity is well underway In early 2021, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia announced The Line: a “civilizational revolution” that would house up…

10 Breakthrough Technologies 2023

Every year, we pick the 10 technologies that matter the most right now. We look for advances that will have a big impact on our lives and break down why they matter.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at customer-service@technologyreview.com with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.