February 15, 2012

The Sked: Thou Shalt Not Appeal Directly to Nielsen Homes

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Written by: Mitch Metcalf
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>Oprah Winfrey broke a cardinal rule of the Nielsen ratings game by appealing directly to Nielsen sample members to watch her struggling network.  As reported in the New York Times and elsewhere, Oprah tweeted Sunday night “Every 1 who can please turn to OWN especially if u have a Neilsen box” as she wrote about her interview program Oprah’s Next ChapterOprah promptly apologized and removed the offending tweet (presumably after a flurry of phone calls and emails from upset lawyers, executives and media relations professionals).  Nielsen has threatened to put an asterisk next to any rating for the telecast, notifying any advertiser or client of the circumstances.  The problem is the asterisk might fight for attention next to the “hash mark” that OWN receives in many time periods (a “<<” symbol Nielsen publishes when ratings fall below a 0.10 and are deemed statistically unreliable).   

Nielsen and other ratings measurement companies such as radio’s Arbitron have longstanding policies against broadcasters directly addressing members of their research samples.  A network or program can advertise, promote and market all they want to a general audience, but a message targeted to sample members is strictly forbidden because it might distort normal behavior.  Some TV stations in small markets still measured by paper diaries go right up to the line by running announcements such as “You are watching WXYZ…write it down.”  Even occasional local TV news stories about the ratings process raise concerns by Nielsen.   

At the extreme, “sample tampering” could occur if a broadcaster somehow identified Nielsen homes and communicated directly with them.  For that reason, the sample’s identity (names, addresses, phone numbers, emails) is one of the best kept secrets in the world.  A fictional scheme to tamper with the ratings sample was the subject of Danny DeVito’s directorial debut in The Ratings Game, a 1984 comedy produced for Showtime/ The Movie Channel and also starring Devito and Rhea Perlman.  (In the film, a disgruntled researcher at the ratings company falls in love with a schlocky producer, and she provides him with a list of people in the sample.  He gives away trips to a number of these families, moves his friends into their homes, and have them watch the stunningly bad and ethnically-stereotyped situation comedy The Goombas, making it a massive overnight hit.  Any parallels to the success of 2 Broke Girls is strictly coincidental.)

So what happened to Sunday’s ratings for Oprah’s Next Chapter?  The telecast at 9 pm did not crack the top 100 cable program list for the night on (generally a 0.3 rating or higher with Adults 18-49).  (When the actual rating, asterisk and all, is available, we will report it.)  But in the fourth quarter of 2011 in prime time, the struggling OWN channel averaged a lowly 0.07 rating with young adults (representing about 85,000 Adults 18-49 in an average minute), meriting the dreaded hash mark.  In its target sales demographic of Women 18-49, OWN averaged a 0.10 rating and 63,000 young women, about the same delivery as the National Geographic Channel (and just above the hash mark line).  That means in a typical moment in prime time, approximately five (yes, 5) women aged 18-49 in the Nielsen sample are watching OWN (5 out of the roughly 5,500 women 18-49 with Nielsen PeopleMeters in their home).  What are the odds that even one of the other 5,495 young women in the sample were following Oprah on Twitter at exactly the right moment (sometime around 9 pm Sunday when the tweet was posted) and then felt compelled to turn on the TV or change the channel to OWN (assuming they can find it)?  Those odds are for another post.  The point is, a broadcaster simply can’t do something like that, even if the action had little to no chance actually lifting the ratings.  


About the Author

Mitch Metcalf
MITCH METCALF has been tracking every US film release of over 500 screens (over 2300 movies and counting) since the storied weekend of May 20, 1994, when Maverick and Beverly Hills Cop 3 inspired countless aficionados to devote their lives to the art of cinema. Prior to that, he studied Politics and Economics at Princeton in order to prepare for his dream of working in television. He has been Head of West Coast Research at ABC, then moved to NBC in 2000 and became Head of Scheduling for 11 years.