Nielsen: Diaries Finally On The Way Out

The ratings service is beginning to replace paper diaries with new electronic devices it’s developed that will track viewing by “listening” to the audio portion of TV shows watched and a Nielsen “audio watermark” embedded in the signals transmitted by stations. It is starting with 14 of the 154 markets that still use diaries.

Nielsen’s diary-based system for measuring local TV viewership — a system that has been in place in one way or another for at least 60 years — is beginning to be dismantled and will “eventually” be retired, TVNewsCheck has learned.

The dismantling has already begun in 14 markets designated by Nielsen, confirmed Shad Family, SVP of local media for Nielsen. The 14 are the first of the 154 markets in which hand-written “viewing diaries” — paper booklets in which Nielsen participants record by hand what they’ve watched on TV — are still the primary source for viewership data.

The diaries are to be replaced by new, electronic devices developed by Nielsen that will track viewing in Nielsen households by “listening” to the audio portion of any TV shows that are being watched and a Nielsen “audio watermark” embedded in the signals transmitted by TV stations. The devices — or “code readers,” as Nielsen is calling them — are about the size of a Roku or Apple TV set-top box, Family said.

The new system will enable the diary-based markets to obtain Nielsen viewership data 12 months a year, instead of just the current four sweeps months (February, May, July and November).

Broadcasters are looking forward to the eventual extinction of the diary system. But because they have depended for so long on the data derived from diaries, they are advising Nielsen to proceed slowly and carefully with the conversion.

“We are anxious to see the diary method going away and the hybrid meters work in medium and small markets,” said Jon Rand, COO of Northwest Broadcasting, owner of several stations in small markets. “We just want to make sure that Nielsen doesn’t skip a step and is doing all it can to not have this come off as half-baked.”


One of the markets where Northwest owns a Fox affiliate — Yakima-Pasco-Richland-Kennewick, Wash. (DMA 122) — happens to be one of the 14 markets being converted.  The others are: Grand Rapids-Kalamazoo-Battle Creek, Mich. (DMA 40), Harrisburg-Lancaster-Lebanon-York, Pa. (45), Fresno-Visalia, Calif. (54), Albany-Schenectady-Troy, N.Y. (58), Mobile, Ala.-Pensacola (Fort Walton), Fla. (59), Flint-Saginaw-Bay City, Mich. (70), Tucson (Sierra Vista), Ariz. (71), Paducah, Ky.-Cape Girardeau, Mo. (81), Madison, Wis. (82), Charleston, S.C. (95), Reno, Nev. (107), Traverse City-Cadillac, Mich. (118), and Santa Barbara-Santa Maria-San Luis Obispo, Calif. (123).

Nielsen is portraying the conversion as a way to finally do away with a paper-based measuring system that has long been fraught with difficulty, particularly in a multichannel era in which television viewing has become far too complicated to be recorded by hand, item by item, in a viewing diary. The company has previously floated ideas and plans to phase out the diaries, but this one is already becoming a reality, Family said, with household recruitment and installation of the new code readers already under way.

He said Nielsen hopes to start producing data from the homes it is installing now “toward the end of this year going into the beginning of next year.”

“We want to continue to invest in our local business,” Family told TVNewsCheck, explaining why Nielsen is going ahead with this conversion plan now. “Our local business is very important to us. We want to support local television.”

In addition, he said: “We recognize that we have to improve the measurements. We wanted to come up with a way where the paper diary is eventually retired and we think this code reader approach gives us one avenue to do that.”

Along with the conversion, Nielsen plans on increasing the size of the audience sample in each of the converted markets, Family added.

Broadcasters are already asking two key questions about the new system: How will demographic data be collected? And, will this new system result in higher prices for Nielsen data?

On the price question, Family would neither confirm nor deny the possibility of a price hike, although some station sources are telling TVNewsCheck that Nielsen has already floated the possibility of a 20% increase — or “premium” — in order to cover Nielsen’s investment in the new system. Family wouldn’t divulge how much Nielsen is investing in the initial 14-market rollout, or for the rest of the rollout in the coming months and years.

“We have a fairly simple philosophy,” Family said, when asked about possible price increases. “And that is, we have to prove to our clients that this is an improvement over their previous service and that any talk of fee increases or price increases, we have to earn that. Right now, our focus is on improving the service.”

As for the demographics question, Northwest’s Rand — who heard a Nielsen pitch on the new code readers earlier this week at a meeting of the Independent Television Group in San Antonio (a meeting held in conjunction with the NAB Small Market Exchange) – characterized the demo-data collection issue as “a little bit of a mystery.”

Family explained that Nielsen plans to derive demographic data by essentially marrying data about the make-up of its code-reader households with more-specific behavioral data in similar households derived from the nearest local-people-meter market.

“We know what’s being watched, we know who’s in the home,” he said of the code-reader homes. “The final step is to apply the demographics of who is watching to the tuning or the viewing that we pick up with the code reader. So we get that intelligence from the national and the local people-meter homes that we have in the region of our diary market.… We take the intelligence from the regional homes and apply probability to who is doing the watching” in the code-reader markets.

“I understand where they are getting their information,” said Rand, who said he hopes the advertising community will understand it too. “If the advertising agencies buy that information, I guess it’s going to be acceptable. There still should be a higher level of accuracy than we get with diaries.”

Additional reporting by Harry A. Jessell in San Antonio.

Comments (10)

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Mike Long says:

September 18, 2014 at 4:24 pm

So…let me get this right….we pay 20% more over the outrageous cost of an all diary NSI, and we get some electronic returns, all year round, but the demos are “projected”. Sounds like Rentrak, but Rentrak is 25% the cost that NSI is projecting. Why would I be interested? Oh yeah, NSI is the “currency” of our business, I forgot. That has to be at least worth 4 times more in cost than I pay for Rentrak. Now we know why NSI bought Arbitron, to get those audio meters!! NSI, to little to late!

    Gregg Palermo says:

    September 19, 2014 at 10:57 am

    of course, you mean “too little too late”

Annette Heath says:

September 18, 2014 at 4:26 pm

Doesn’t Viggle already do this AND offer some cool stuff to “buy” with the points you accumulate? Maybe Viggle should become the new currency for the Nielsen diary markets.

Wagner Pereira says:

September 18, 2014 at 4:47 pm

If the audio is encoded for measurement, one can only think this is first step to using the PPM technology Nielsen acquired from the Arbitron purchase to eventually using PPM technology throughout their ratings, combining it with Audio and thus reducing their sample costs.

Janet Frankston Lorin says:

September 18, 2014 at 5:16 pm

I can’t think of a single market where stations benefitted from switching from diaries to meters. Some HUTs dropped 90%.

    Kristine Melser says:

    September 18, 2014 at 6:06 pm

    The smaller stations in a market benefit from going diary to meter because no one wrote down that they were watching Springer and Springer ratings went up and I believe late fringe ratings go up with meters too because no one wrote down when they were watching while going to sleep. The boomer stations in a market have the most to lose and yes, they do lose some but that always makes sense because no one drew arrows down the page of diaries anymore.

diane seghers says:

September 18, 2014 at 7:01 pm

So, Nielsen’s business is to accurately report TV audiences. They have (finally) determined that the product needs to be changed to reflect the current marketplace. In other words, they need to make these changes to keep doing what they are paid to do. And we get to finance this? That’s like me telling an advertiser their Late News rate is going up 20% because I need a new ENG truck.

Rachel Martin says:

September 19, 2014 at 8:56 am

Medium Market snapshot:
Nielsen is going to place encoders into 350-450 homes that measure viewing audibly (don’t mute please) rather than use 700-1200 diaries. These encoders will live in a home for 52 weeks? Diaries sample different people each week…encoders live with the same family for an entire year.
Diaries are garbage but atleast the sample is twice that of an encoder. Nielsen will fill in the holes with people-meter data from nearby markets that have a much different ethnic and economic footprint???
And they will charge more?
Use the diaries and the encoders to help establish a better measurement.
Every station has had a bad week due to a household sample that was favorable to the station accross the street…can you imagine having a bad sample for 52-weeks.
This is simply mind blowing
Rentrack will have 100,000-250,000 household box top data measured in these mid-size markets regardless of sound (encoders need sound to measure). If they can figure out a real demo measurement that is cost efficient on their end…Nielsen is done.
God help our industry
If they

Brett Medellin says:

September 19, 2014 at 9:27 am

More BS from Nielsen.

Teal Gennaro says:

September 19, 2014 at 11:23 am

Just more Nielsen voo-doo garbage that is getting jammed down our throats.

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