Mommy, Where Do Nielsens Come From?

Answering your child’s questions about Nielsen ratings can be an embarrassing, as well as difficult experience. Recent unreliable studies show that data abuse begins at an early age.

The colorful cartoon charts of the “USA Today Snapshot” are the gateway drug of choice for most youngsters, and those innocent stacks of Abe Lincolns depicting our nation split on whether to abolish the penny can lead to lifelong data addiction and abuse.

While I am neither a parent nor a psychologist, recent events have shown you do not have to be an authority of any sort — or even know where ratings come from — to be a Nielsen expert, especially on Local People Meters. Once a Byzantine argument sinks to nonsensical bickering, anyone can join in.

Case in point — on August 5, Broadcasting & Cable reported that the Don’t Count Us Out Coalition said “seven teams of two people” (known to the lay-person as the number “14”) showed up to hand out flyers in protest of the Chicago Local People Meter rollout. A Nielsen Media Research spokeswoman countered that only three people with signs showed up.

Clearly, Nielsen used its Local People Meters to sample the protest, which led them to vastly underreport the Don’t Count Us Out protesters. The “photograph” methodology might have cleared up both the number of protesters, as well as the questionable classification of “flyers” as “signs”. How long will this fight go on?

Stephen Hawking recently announced that he was wrong 30 years ago when his math led him to conclude that black holes destroy everything they consume. That was a much needed clarification of a universe whose physics allow for Fox News Channel to have higher ratings while Cable News Network has more viewers.

These thorny paradoxes that were once the domain of physicists, philosophers and the Christian Right are now up for grabs, and one does not need an understanding of advanced statistics with an emphasis on binomial probabilities, flaws in self-reported data and sampling methodology to make a point with Nielsen ratings.

The winner of any such debate will be the party with the greater understanding of psychological warfare, also known as marketing.

Don’t Count Us Out makes the following point on its Web site: “The problem is, according to Nielsen’s own research, African American and Latino viewers using People Meter technology may be undercounted by as much as 25%. If this happens, the shows we want to see may never make it to our TV screens and minority viewers will be short changed.”

But what if I wanted to make a different point? I could simply take that eloquent paragraph and insert one different fact to draw a parallel conclusion: “The problem is, according to Nielsen’s own research, African American and Latino male 18-to-34 viewers using People Meter technology may be undercounted by as much as 25%. If this happens, the shows we males 18 to 34 want to see may never make it to our TV screens, and minority male 18-to-34 viewers will be shortchanged.”

As a member of that particular demographic, I would say it is time to panic. Does this mean there will be no Simple Life 3? Was this summer the last time I get to hear Paris Hilton ask, “Do you love it?”

Not likely. Scarcity increases a commodity’s value. If grandma spent all day playing “Grand Theft Auto,” there would be more The Golden Girls clones than Dick Wolf could bang a gavel at.

However, the current level of debate over Local People Meters seems only to ensure that one day soon your child may ask, “¿Por que al Señor Nielsen no le gustan los Hispanos?” If this happens, you should assume that you are classified as a Spanish-speaking home, and it is time to discuss the intricacies of statistics, advertising and economics with your child.

Armed with this new knowledge, your child will learn to give thoughtful answers to complex questions, ensuring him or her a difficult and frustrating life. This is time well-spent, as it will also serve to explain the strange decisions programmers make, like the upcoming Simple Life/Forensic Files crossover show:

Nicole: “That’s so mitochondrial.”

Paris: “Do you love it?”

Spinning data may actually be the oldest profession, and you can be sure those who are most uncomfortable with numbers will be the first to turn a statistical debate into a moral one. Among all the arguments over data, there is, finally, one truth: human behavior changes so slowly that data based on a day or a month or even a year is not predictive nor does it indicate a trend.

Young men watch only slightly less TV than they did ten years ago, homes have averaged more than seven hours of daily TV viewing for the past 20 years, and no matter how many times we overestimate the devastating impact of the VCR, DVR, DVD, VOD or LPM, it’s always time to panic.