Nielsen: Diary Fix Coming One Of These Days

With more evidence that diaries don't work, Nielsen reps say that fixing local TV measurement is its No. 1 priority, but they offer no time frame for when a better solution might be forthcoming. Before implementing new ratings methods, says Nielsen's Matt O'Grady, Nielsen has to make sure that they are technologically sound, user-friendly and affordable,


Faced with new evidence that the diary system is seriously flawed, Nielsen executives say they will work to improve the ratings method while continuing to pursue alternatives.

“We have to take care of the currency of today while preparing for tomorrow,  regardless of the state it is in,” said Matt O’Grady, Nielsen’s EVP and managing director of local media. Finding ways to recruit a broader range of viewers willing to participate in diary keeping and developing an electronic diary are among plans on Nielsen’s agenda, he said.

“The No. 1 priority for Nielsen is local measurement because it has so many challenges,” O’Grady added.

O’Grady’s comments came in response to two Council for Research for Excellence studies showing that ratings gathered through diaries have two problems: a proliferation of random errors and a lack of response from particular viewers such as young adults and Hispanics. 

O’Grady was one of the panelists at a “mini-summit” hosted by CRE Tuesday in New York to discuss the studies’ findings and their implications.

O’Grady said Nielsen takes the studies’ findings — some of which stem from skewed audience samples, despite a switch to address vs. phone-based research — “all very seriously.”


Yet ditching paper diaries for electronic solutions, which include everything from set-top boxes to code readers to mobile record-keeping devices, “has not been as easy as everyone thought,” he said.

Before implementing new ratings methods, Nielsen has to make sure that they are technologically sound, user-friendly and affordable enough for broadcasters to pay for them. “I would like to do it quicker. But it has to be done right,” he said.

Jed Meyer, of Annalect, a business research and consulting firm, said “we need to bring technological solutions to the market sooner” especially “given the limitations of the instrument which I thought was going to be gone two years ago.”

It’s unrealistic to expect paper diaries, which rely heavily on viewer recall, to work well “in 2014 with the number of viewing choices people have,” he said.

Inaccurate ratings can cost broadcasters business, he added. “There are lots of other places to put money” where advertisers can get more precise measurements, he said.

Bruce Goerlich, chief research officer of Rentrak, the Nielsen competitor that uses set-top boxes to get a fix on viewership, said the diary system is outdated. “They are stuck in a science and approach that doesn’t work in this world anymore,” he said. “There are fundamental problems that you have with sample-based measurements in a culturally diverse, fractionalized viewing market and survey-saturated world.”

In the meantime, the panelists agreed, it would behoove broadcasters and media agencies to keep advertisers informed on audience measurement, so that their expectations are in line with the information.

“We use these as if they were precise,” said Janice Finkel-Greene, a Magna Global EVP. “If we don’t see sales increasing, and [clients] are not getting the right results because of the measurement we are using, than we are doing them a disservice.”

“I think if we are completely honest about the ratings and what they can and can’t do … the advertisers would understand,” she said.

Which would help further one of the CRE’s goal of doing the studies in the first place, which is “raising awareness,” according to Raycom’s Billy McDowell, chair of the CRE’s Local Measurement Committee.

“Our attempt was not to remedy the situation right here but to increase the understanding,” he said.

Comments (3)

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Gregg Palermo says:

October 9, 2013 at 8:41 am

Two decades ago, Nielsen promised that there’d “always be diaries in Duluth” — because of the expense to stations.

Britney Williams says:

October 9, 2013 at 8:47 am

The king has no clothes (and never did). The more you dig into the diary methodology, the more you realize that it never was a reliable option. It’s like the old cliche, “one lies (Nielsen), and the others (us) swear by it. We are complicit in the crime of fraud by supporting Nielsen.

    Gregg Palermo says:

    October 9, 2013 at 11:31 am

    Reliability and validity are in the eye of the beholder. The buyers and sellers of advertising have embraced ratings information as the common currency of their exchange. Gamblers will play a crooked roulette wheel so long as it’s the only game in town, especially if both sides of the arrangement seem satisfied. Fairness is not an issue in the absence of a complaint from the parties involved. I think bad audience measurement is better than no measurement at all, just as swill whisky is better than none at all.