OPEN MIKE BY TED STEPHENS

My Cynicism Regarding Nielsen Has No Bounds

Ted Stephens: I had the opportunity to manage and work with TV stations all over the country, all affiliations. If you’re thinking my distain for Nielsen is nothing more than sour grapes for having stations with poor ratings, maybe a story about my nonagenarian parents will make it all clear.

Looking back on my career in the broadcast TV, there are things I don’t miss. Near the top of the list is Nielsen.

I had the opportunity to manage and work with TV stations all over the country, all affiliations. Most were diary markets. There would be No. 1 station, the No. 2 was not far behind the No. 2 and the rest were way not.  Affiliation was not the deciding factor in the ranking.

It was rare when you saw a station make a significant change in ratings.

Regularly, Nielsen would announce a new, improved methodology for determining audiences. With every announcement I thought of the Lilly Tomlin line: “No matter how cynical you get, it is impossible to keep up.”

If you’re thinking my distain for Nielsen is nothing more than sour grapes for having stations with poor ratings, maybe this will help you understand.

In April, my parents. 93 and 94, got a Nielsen Media Kit for Minneapolis-St. Paul.

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In the kit were two little devices that automatically monitor what Mom and Dad are watching on TV, although they don’t actually do much watching. Dad is legally blind and very hard of hearing and Mom sleeps most of the day. But it won’t matter.

The TV will be on and that gizmo, if left in place, will dutifully send the information back to Chicago to have the folks’ household added to the Nielsen overnight ratings, which the networks, agencies and advertisers treat as the Gold Standard, the Holy Grail of audience measurement, blindly accepted.

After my folks received the kit, a Nielsen representative called.  I told her about the age of my folks and their handicaps and she said, “That’s OK; Nielsen doesn’t discriminate.”

Good point. What was I thinking?

I explained how ludicrous it was for my folks to be a Nielsen household.  Three weeks later they sent a package to the house asking the folks to return the survey material.  Hallelujah. Nielsen saw the light.

Then, last week my parents, 94 and 95, received a Fed Ex package with two $5 bills in it congratulating them on being chosen as a Nielsen household.

I can’t keep up.

Ted Stephens is a marketing consultant now, but he spent 36 years in broadcasting, many in station management. His years running two stations in Des Moines, KDSM and later KDMI, earned him a spot in the Iowa Broadcasters Association Hall of Fame.


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