Secrets of a May 'Nielsen Family'

Jerry Seinfeld has a joke about how men watch TV, remotes at the ready: "Men don't care what's on TV. Men only care what ELSE is on TV."

That observation rings in my head as I recount spending a week keeping a diary as a "Nielsen Family" during May sweeps. This is the four-week period that helps determine how much advertisers pay to run ads on a television network or local station. Based on my experience, it's a well-meaning but imperfect measuring system that suggests advertisers may be rolling the dice when they pay for ads designed to reach a particular audience.

First, I should make clear I considered it a privilege to keep the diaries -- one for each of the four sets in our house. As someone who spent 20 years as a television journalist, who reaped the rewards or suffered the consequences of ratings performance, I embraced the opportunity to see first-hand how the raw data was created for the highly anticipated "diary" portion of the ratings reports issued by the iconic Nielsen. (Overnight ratings "meters" keep track of viewing electronically.)

Keeping these old-school diaries requires you to write down the titles of the shows you watched in the formatted diary, plus the call letters, the channel numbers (with barely enough room for the four-digit HD channels), and list who in the family was watching and for how long -- "Anytime the TV is watched or listened to for 5 minutes or more." It's a pretty straightforward system and probably worked great in an era when you had to get up off the couch, walk over to the TV set and turn the knob to switch to one of the other three stations. (While there, you could reposition the rabbit ears and adjust the color contrast and hue.)

But in a remote control/DVR world, people no longer watch TV in such a static fashion. For instance, in the morning when we're getting ready for work, we "DVR" the Today show in the living room -- "DVR" is a verb now, right? -- as we go about our morning routine, which includes fixing breakfast for our twin 8-year-old daughters in the kitchen. I'll catch a headline story or two, and maybe see another segment while I'm passing through the room. At a certain point my wife and I will sit down on the couch for 10 minutes or so and drink our tea while we rewind or fast-forward to the segments we want to watch. But in the diary, it will record us as watching Today for a solid hour. That's not exactly how we watched it.

Since the Nielsen format is broken into 15-minute segments, I also wasn't able to log that I switched to Good Morning America and CBS This Morning to see what they were covering. I may have seen a decent package (story) on another network, but it won't show up in the diary because I had to make a single choice for the 15-minute segment. More than one network may have been watched -- maybe even for equal time -- but only one will show up in the Nielsen report. With the diary system, it's either 15 minutes or nothing.

By the way, it also strikes me that all three of the network morning shows appear to follow a similar format. By about 20 minutes after the hour they're finished providing any real content. Then at 27 minutes after the hour the local stations will do their two-minute "cut-ins," with news, weather and traffic (or as my father calls them, "break-ins"). You would think that at least one of the networks would offer counter-programming to that format. Why doesn't No. 3 CBS, knowing that people may be flipping channels during those local cut-ins and commercials, offer some network content that might capture new viewers?

I may be unusual in that I get up early -- 4 a.m. or 5 a.m. -- to get things done while my family is still asleep. And as a former CNBC anchor, I watch business shows like Squawk Box more often than the average person. This may be good news for CNBC since one of the criticisms of the Nielsen ratings system is that the sampling data is small, meaning one person can have an inordinate impact on the final results. Since I'm intrigued by politics, I'll also watch Morning Joe on MSNBC as I work on my laptop. I flip back and forth according to which show earns my sometimes drifting attention. But again, the Nielsen diary required me to log one or the other during each 15-minute period and only one will show up in the final diary.

Every programmer in television is interested in reaching the age 25-54 demographic, "the demo." The theory is that those are the active consumers who have not developed brand loyalty and consequently can be swayed by the right advertising. Leaving aside for a moment whether Madison Avenue should try to reach those viewers -- it's people over 50 with all the money -- I think the diary may not completely capture the demographic makeup of TV viewers (which, in all fairness to Nielsen, may be by design).

Take my wife (por favor). She was raised in San Antonio, Texas, the daughter of Mexican-American parents who spoke Spanish to each other but only English to their five kids. But in the "Step 1" section, the diary asks only about "the person [not persons] living here who owns or rents this home." The question asks, "Is this person of Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin?" Well, I'm not -- so my answer was "no" -- but my Texas-born wife is. And she sees the world a little differently than I do. Just put on George Lopez or Paul Rodriguez and watch her crack up at references about growing up in a Latino community. But the diary doesn't ask specifically about her. And since our daughters aren't registered either -- except as to their age, how many hours they work and whether they speak Spanish -- there are three Hispanic people in our house who are not counted.

I also hate to admit it, but special programming during sweeps actually does work. For instance, Warren Buffett was on CNBC as a guest for three hours one day on Squawk Box. I DVR'd the show and watched all three hours later, fast-forwarding through anything non-Buffett. While I usually watch some Squawk Box, I never watch the entire three hours. But they lassoed me in with the Oracle of Omaha. Granted, CNBC is a cable network, and not as tied to May sweeps, but it is proof that one-off programming does work.

Recording favorite shows (like the nightly network news) and watching them at a convenient time was a constant theme in our household. And like many other viewers, we will record some shows and start watching them 10 or 15 minutes later and catch up to the live action as we fast-forward through the commercials. That's a difficult viewing interaction to log, even though the diary will allow you to list whether you watched a show live or recorded. Did we watch it live? Kind of. Did we record it and watch it later? Sort of.

Since I kept the diaries for just one week, there are a handful of shows that we recorded that won't show up. Among them, an HBO special called The Curious Case of Curt Flood. Curt Flood was an accomplished baseball player in the '60s who filed a court case that helped blaze a path toward free agency for professional ball players. I ended up watching it later (it was excellent), but wasn't able to get to it during that week, so it won't show up.

The diary-logging process can also reflect a built-in prejudice that viewers might have for or against a program or network. In an odd twist of fate, I was asked to participate in the Nielsens even though my contract was terminated by a local TV station (as an Emmy-winning news anchor) a year and a half ago. I told the Nielsen folks about it, but they only wanted to ensure that I was not currently employed by a TV station or network. I could have gone through the diary and written down my former station's competitor for every news show during that week, but I didn't. I've got better things to do with my time than seek retribution and fill myself with such negativity. I've moved on.

But the point is that there is nothing to keep the diary logger from listing their favorite shows or programs, whether they watched them or not. For instance, if a viewer switched back and forth between local news shows, they might be inclined to write down the station they've watched for years, even if they actually spent more time watching the competitor. Because of that built-in prejudice, the diaries might not match reality.

One of the things that advertisers may notice in my ramblings is how we avoided commercials. The effort is not made with any malice, but in the interest of saving time. (There are just too many of them.) We may watch them inadvertently, but when a commercial comes on, we often use that as a triggering event to see what else is on (Seinfeld was right). And since ratings are largely designed to set advertising rates, how accurate can the measurement be when the viewer has so many tools to avoid watching the ads?

The task of actually keeping track of what we watched was trickier than I thought. While I typically don't think consciously about what we watch and for how long, I had to do exactly that to keep the diary. I made a diligent effort to keep track of our viewing by concurrently writing it down, but with different family members going about their lives on different schedules (including when I wasn't home), I could see where the diary process could lead to some inaccuracies in the logging task. And it was a little odd to ask my wife, "Did you watch anything between 4 and 5?" "What about between 5 and 6?" "Did you watch anything else?" "Did you record The View?" "When did you watch it?" "Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?"

While the Nielsen diary process confirmed that our kids don't watch much TV, they do have an affinity for Sponge Bob. (Congratulations, Viacom.) But on the occasions when my wife told them they could watch it downstairs in the den, I had to piece together when that was. When I wasn't exactly sure, I guessed. And I could have written down a time that Mr. Square Pants doesn't even air.

It would be easy to suggest that Nielsen's automatic digital counters, "Set Meters" or "People Meters," would remedy the insufficiencies of the diary-logging process. But even those electronic boxes, which can record TV viewing minute by minute, would require active engagement for accurate data. And that belies the modern American tendency to use TV as background noise in the life of an active family. Even with a digital box, I suspect that somebody is out of the room when Dr. Phi" tells a guest for the thousandth time that he was born at night, but he wasn't born LAST night.

That's the beauty of the Nielsen diary system. It forces participants to think about what they're watching. And one of my conclusions is that I'm paying for a lot of channels that I don't watch. Admittedly we're not a huge TV-viewing family, but I counted the number of channels we watched during the ratings week and it totaled just twelve. And how many channels do we get? I stopped counting at 200.

I look forward to a day -- and I know well-paid media executives are testing out business models -- when I can buy programming directly from content providers like CNBC and ESPN and route them directly to my computer, TV or mobile device. Do I really need a cable company serving as a middleman, forcing me to subsidize hundreds of channels of drivel with my ever-increasing bill?

The times, like the channels, they are a changing.