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A new hand on pulse of TV world

Susan D. Whiting takes over at Nielsen Media Research as the company seeks to redefine its role in the ever-changing media universe.

©Los Angeles Times
January 6, 2002

High in a tower, a group of wizards spins mysterious spells, their alchemy governing the fate of a kingdom and its minions.

But enough about Nielsen Media Research.

From a commercial and perhaps even cultural perspective, few enterprises may be more influential, and less understood, than Nielsen, which compiles at its operations center in Dunedin the television ratings that networks and media buyers rely upon to negotiate advertising rates.

Beyond governing more than $50-billion in annual spending on TV ads, the information serves as a cultural touchstone, a tool people use to gauge the prevailing public mood and tastes.

That dynamic alone would be reason to take note of a change within the castle, as Susan D. Whiting became president and chief executive of the ratings service effective Tuesday, succeeding John Dimling, who is retiring.

Whiting, 45, has spent her entire career at Nielsen, having started in the company's management development program in 1978 after graduating from Denison University with a degree in economics. Still, she takes the helm at a time when Nielsen (acquired by Dutch media giant VNU in 1999) faces enormous challenges, as researchers grapple with how best to estimate viewing patterns in a world populated by hundreds of channels, viewed and distributed in an ever-changing variety of ways.

And, yes, the word is "estimate," which, despite the high stakes, is all Nielsen or similar research companies can profess to do. In this case, the service employs samples of several thousand to estimate TV viewing in more than 105-million U.S. homes with television, both on a national basis and in 210 individually rated cities across the United States, from New York to tiny Glendive, Mont.

On a national level, viewing is monitored by "people meters," introduced in the 1980s, which offer detailed next-day information along various demographic lines, recording viewing by every member in a household.

Intricate as the system is, it is not without shortcomings. The networks, at various times, have griped about the validity of the Nielsen sample and its failure to count such things as out-of-home viewing in bars, offices and hotel rooms, potentially punishing franchises ranging from Monday Night Football to daytime soaps to CNN and the Weather Channel.

Despite such complaints, Nielsen, founded in 1923, has endured as TV's primary ratings source for more than four decades, weathering challenges from competitors to maintain a virtual monopoly.

"The agencies, the networks, the stations and the producers live and die by those figures," said Harold Simpson, vice president of research for the Television Bureau of Advertising, or TVB, which, like Nielsen, is headquartered in New York.

Whiting, situated more than 20 floors above Park Avenue, is undaunted by the fact Nielsen is invariably perceived as a bad guy or a punch line, an insidious force that can't possibly get it right. Fans of canceled series fill Web sites insisting Nielsen doesn't approximate their tastes, just as disgruntled producers are occasionally heard muttering, "Well, everyone I know was watching the show. . . . "

Perhaps more than anything, however, people are curious. Often, when she meets people, Whiting said, "their first question is, "How do you do that?' You spend a lot of your time describing how we do what we do."

Nielsen's methodology runs the gamut from high-tech (wiring people's homes) to low, which includes mailing out "diaries" that ask individuals to record their viewing habits. More recently, the company has joined with Arbitron, which provides radio ratings, to test a "portable people meter," a device about the size of pager that detects identification codes embedded in TV or radio programs. Data are downloaded at the end of each day.

Preliminary tests of the Arbitron system have revealed increased use levels for TV and radio, with another round to begin in Philadelphia this month. New cable set-top box technology, as well as personal video recorders such as TiVo, also present opportunities to gather data directly from consumers. Whiting points out that such information's value must be balanced against the fact that the relatively few people who own such devices aren't representative of the population at large. In order to be valid, the sample must be randomly chosen, with everyone having an equal chance to be asked.

Nielsen's biggest problem, historically, has been getting people to participate, either to fill out diaries or become "Nielsen families" for anywhere from two years (at the national level) to up to five years for local markets.

"The most important part of the process is getting the right homes, getting people to cooperate," Whiting said.

Other limitations are financial. For example, Whiting said, discussion of methodology to measure viewing in college dorms and vacation homes (the former, in particular, would be good news to shows such as Late Night With Conan O'Brien or The Daily Show With Jon Stewart) has temporarily been deemed cost-prohibitive due to a downturn in the advertising market.

Moreover, the entertainment and advertising industries have both consolidated, so Nielsen finds itself dealing with fewer companies. The push and pull among those massive media conglomerates will determine the kind of information Nielsen collects.

"The data exist minute to minute," Whiting said. "Our clients have to help to decide what it is they want us to report."

Whiting says Nielsen data are "extremely reliable and very accurate" and that the service must remain open to alliances and technology that will augment its data. As it is, listening to the way Nielsen goes about measuring the viewing patterns of 270-million U.S. residents brings to mind Winston Churchill's comment about democracy, namely, that it is the worst system of government ever invented, except for all the others.

Such disclaimers aside, Nielsen ratings are generally reported as gospel, to the extent that adults actually find themselves quibbling over hundredths of rating points, as evidenced by the amusing spectacle that followed the November sweeps, when NBC and Fox split hairs over who finished first among adults age 18 to 49, the most important category to advertisers and networks.

Then again, if the system requires suspension of disbelief -- a need to have faith that the No. 23 show did, indeed, beat out the No. 24 show when the situation might actually have been reversed -- consider that part of the magic denizens of Nielsen's kingdom have come to accept.

"Nobody pays attention to the small print," said Ave Butensky, a veteran TV executive and former head of the TVB, conceding that ratings are not an exact science. Still, he said, "if there were no Nielsen, I don't know what kind of mayhem you'd have."

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