Wednesday, July 19, 2006

The Ratings Game

(continued from The Father of Television, see 7/7 below)

Along with the new media of radio and tv came new methods of measuring their audiences.

Archibald Crossley was asked by the Association of National Advertisers to organize the first national rating service. Crossley was an innovative market researcher. He had won a prize from Harvard for his pioneering garbage studies. He recruited households to supply him with their household waste, which was then carefully sorted for evidence of consumption patterns. (And in case you’re wondering, no, I don’t think that’s where the saying “garbage in, garbage out” comes from).

Crossley used telephone surveys, asking respondents what they listened to the day before. The Crossley “rating” (a term he is credited with coining) soon became an important factor in program decisions. The Crossley system was replaced in 1935 by C.E. Hooper ratings. The Hooper ratings were considered superior because they used telephone coincidentals – measuring what listeners were listening to at that moment – which eliminated the problem of errors associated with recall.

In 1946, A.C. Nielsen developed a meter method for measuring radio tune-in levels. The Nielsen ratings quickly became the standard of the industry. Meanwhile, radio’s penetration had grown from 40% U.S. homes in 1930 to more than 80% in 1940. By 1950, radio penetration had reached 95% U.S. homes. Soon, however, the impact of tv had a staggering effect on radio. Advertisers and listeners began abandoning radio in favor of tv. Nielsen reported steady declines in radio listening as more homes purchased their first tv sets. Low ratings were a problem for Nielsen, which had trouble measuring the declining audiences with a 1,000 home sample. Out-of-home audiences were another problem. Car manufacturers began adding radios after the war, and meters could not measure this increasingly important element of radio's audience. Later, Nielsen dropped out of the radio ratings business, succeeded by Arbitron which used a personal diary method. Also, the radio industry fought back against the onslaught of tv. Many stations added Top 40, Talk, and other formats which drew back listeners and advertisers. Radio advertising revenues began climbing again after 1956, with the biggest gains coming from retail advertisers.

A.C. Nielsen, of course, dominated in tv ratings. At first, there were several companies providing ratings data for radio and tv, each using their own methodology. Discrepancies in audience estimates among the competing firms frustrated both broadcasters and advertisers. In 1950, radio station KJBS in San Francisco became so incensed over contradictory ratings estimates by two firms that it ran a full-page ad in the trade magazine Broadcasting-Telecasting, headed, “Two Umpires Behind the Plate Isn’t Any Good in Broadcasting, Either.”

A committee was formed to investigate the radio station’s charges and quickly expanded the scope of its inquiry to take in the entire ratings field. Its report criticized the rating services so sharply that when the Advertising Research Foundation polled its members in 1952, asking them what they most wanted the foundation to do, there was an overwhelming vote in favor of “ending confusion in radio and TV audience ratings.” In the end, A.C. Nielsen, with its Audimeter technology came out on top for television.

TV programs, as comedian Sid Caesar remarked, “lived or died” by the ratings. Red Buttons, who passed away just a few days ago, was one of the first to experience this. He was an obscure young night-club comedian when he was discovered by a CBS vice-president who gave him a chance to do his own program on TV. At the end of his first year, Buttons had a comfortable position among the first five in the Nielsen ratings. But in his second year his ratings began to slip. They didn’t slip far, but Red’s show followed I Love Lucy, and his sponsors couldn’t understand why Lucy’s 60 rating fell off to Buttons ’40. Buttons says, “Imagine anyone complaining about a 40 rating? That’s better than some of the most successful shows on the air.”

His protest was to no avail, and the format-changers got to work. Instead of Buttons’ freewheeling style of comedy, they pinned him down to situation comedy, although he objected that there were too many sitcoms on the air already. His rating continued to drop.

Finally, in desperation, Buttons went back to his original format. By that time, it was too late. The sponsor canceled the show, and CBS, which could have renewed Buttons’ contract for another year, decided to let him go. Almost immediately, the young comedian was signed by NBC, which had analyzed the composition of Buttons’ audience and decided that he’d have great appeal for children in an early evening show. After reverting to his original format, Buttons climbed into a tie for the No. 7 spot in the Nielsen ratings with The Ed Sullivan Show.

Fast forward to the present and the challenge of measuring audiences continues.

Not long ago, radio ratings company Arbitron planned to team up with Nielsen Media Research to develop a multi-media Portable People Meter (PPM), a device designed to provide a comprehensive portrait of individual media consumption. Nielsen backed out of the Arbitron deal, but has since announced its own consumer total-information-awareness campaign, dubbed "Anytime Anywhere Media Measurement" (or A2/M2). The campaign relies on the willingness of participants to carry monitoring devices with them wherever they go.

Ratings researchers are also considering ways of integrating PPMs with GPS devices and radio-frequency ID chips. Down the road, the idea is to develop a convergent, multi-media ad-exposure detector that would be able to capture information not just about the music users listen to and the TV they watch, but the billboards they are exposed to throughout the course of their day and even the magazine and newspaper ads they are near enough to see (thanks to RFID chips embedded in the articles and ads). The result would be as comprehensive a portrait of individual advertising exposure as possible.

In the near future, the goal is to create a fully monitored media enclosure by matching up this information with consumption behavior, as measured by consumers who scan their purchases at home. When products are equipped with RFID chips, the PPM could double as a consumer meter, gathering information about purchasing behavior as well as advertising exposure.

In the future, it's likely that the devices we use to consume media products will become self-monitoring. Cell phones are already being developed that can be used as electronic credit cards, as well as to download, store, view, and listen to media, and to keep track of our locations. With just a few more tweaks we may find that we're carrying around an all-purpose monitoring tool.

(to be continued…)

Sources and additional reading:

Andrejevic, Mark, “Total Information Awareness - The Media Version”, Flow, Vol. 4 Issue 8,

History of Radio 1929-1931,,

The Rating Game: Broadcasters Rely on Poll Numbers They Don’t Trust, History Matters, The U.S. Survey Course on the Web,


Blogger Paul said...

With the advent of digital and wireless technology hitting the "ratings game" we are witnessing the beginning of a new chapter in measurement...and, me thinks, a few surprises.

2:45 PM  

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