TV Ratings

CNN Trump

It’s hard to believe there’s been any figure in American history who has so dominated the day-to-day American consciousness as Donald Trump.  It’s been almost three years since the fateful moment he descended that golden escalator in Trump Tower to launch his presidential campaign, and there’s been scarcely a day since when he hasn’t commanded our attention.

Trump can rightfully claim the title that Howard Stern once conferred on himself: The King of All Media.  In doing so he has been aided and abetted by the media themselves.   It’s no small irony that the same people who purport to loathe him are the very ones giving him all the airtime and ink.  (Or as Michelle Wolf framed it at the White House Correspondents Dinner: “He has helped you sell your papers and your books and your TV.  You helped create this monster and now you are profiting from him.”)

I work in an open space office and the wall-mounted televisions give me a good idea about how dependent TV news is on Trump’s antics to keep the viewers enthralled.  How I long for the days when they would merely exploit a murdered teen or celebrity melt-down to keep the eyeballs tuned in!  Now it’s all Trump all the time.

Dick Cavett recently admitted that Watergate was one of the greatest times of his life because it was a thrilling day-to-day drama that resulted in the ejection of a president he despised.  We’re in the same mindset now.  All those who live in non-stop outrage, either pro- or anti-Trump, claim they’re fighting for the good of the country but they seem addicted to the same adrenaline rush that afflicts gamblers, thrill-seekers and bungee jumpers.

I have a Trump-voting friend who dreads coming home from work because his wife will inevitably meet him at the door outraged over Trump’s latest malfeasance.  She knows these non-stop rants aren’t good for their marriage but just can’t stop watching CNN while doing the laundry or checking Twitter in bed. If that’s not addiction, I don’t know what is.

It‘s now a commonplace to say that Trump has turned the presidency into a reality TV show, but in truth the presidency has been a reality show for decades.  I just listened to John Dickerson’s “Whistlestop” podcast on about the increasing role that presidents play as symbolic participants in our national drama.  For example, in 1955, President Eisenhower could go on vacation, completely off the grid while a series of hurricanes slammed the Southeast.  And no one thought it was strange that the President was playing golf while millions of Americans suffered.

That all changed in 1965 when President Johnson decided to take advantage of the TV coverage of Hurricane Betsy to show he was a strong leader in charge of the federal response.  Alas, hurricanes aren’t always a president’s friend.  We all remember that President George W. Bush’s inadequate display of empathy during Hurricane Katrina seriously derailed his presidency.

But high-visibility hurricane response is only a tiny sliver of the vast portfolio of emotional responsibilities the president is expected to master.  He (and eventually she) is supposed to be the mourner-in-chief, America’s dad or grandpa, the exerciser-in-chief, the sports-fan-in-chief, the main arbiter of American cultural taste (at the Kennedy Center), the comedian-in-chief (at the White House Correspondence Dinner) and the overall embodiment of the American nation.

The State of the Union, for example, long ago devolved into a very special episode for the presidential reality show, with one side of the aisle cheering wildly at the president’s every utterance and everyone across the aisle one working hard to frown or jeer whenever they think they might be on TV.  It’s now “Wrestlemania” in suits and ties.

The point is that a lot of the president’s job has very little to do with his actual Constitutional responsibility, which is to manage the executive branch of the federal government.  But it’s the extra-Constitutional responsibilities that we’re most addicted to.  Who cares about housing policy when there’s Twitter?  The presidential behavior that most outrages the Trump addicts is the most inconsequential – the tweets, off the cuff remarks, and verbal flights of fancy at his rallies.  Not coincidentally, these are also the behaviors that draw the most opprobrium on TV and the highest ratings.

Is it possible to break the Trump addiction?  Lord knows I’m trying but there are so many enablers who keep pulling me back.  I’ve “hidden” my most fanatical Facebook friends and unfollowed most political and cultural reporters on Twitter.  I walk right past the TV if a cable news channel is on and I’ve stopped watching all the late night TV shows.

None of this is really helping.  Trump is still everywhere.  In a Wall Street Journal essay a few weeks ago, Joseph Epstein suggested that just as we had meatless Monday’s during World War II, maybe we should now have Trumpless Thursdays.  Oh how divine that would be.  Let’s get on that.



Netflix Stranger Things

Netflix has been a disruptive, revolutionary force in many ways, but from a PR perspective, what’s particularly interested me is how they’ve refused to play the old “bragging rights” game. You know how that works – the networks deploy an army of in-house publicists to brag about their ratings, which are dutifully reported in the TV columns the next day.

To this end, we get press releases about how Show X won the week among women aged 18-24 or that Show Y finished first among the elusive male 25-34 demographic.   None of this matters in a concrete way because networks make money on ad dollars, most of which are based on commercial ratings. Shows don’t get a bonus for their ranking on a top 25 list. Nevertheless, disputes over who “won” a time slot – even by a tenth of a rating point – can become bitter, with occasional calls to Nielsen to umpire disputes between networks. This makes you wonder whether it’s business or ego driving the publicity apparatus.

Netflix, by contrast, has long disdained bragging rights. They don’t care who knows how big their shows are. They have nothing to gain by boasting about the size of their accomplishments.   They make their money by selling subscriptions, not through advertising, and have no interest in reporting out numbers for individual shows.

From a PR perspective the networks are probably glad the Netflix doesn’t publicize viewing numbers because many original Netflix shows would knock traditional television programming further down in the rankings. On the other hand, the networks would dearly love to know how popular their own catalogue of TV series are when leased to Netflix for streaming. After all, 80 percent of Netflix viewing is leased content (old TV shows and movies). Content owners would have a stronger negotiating position if they knew how many people were actually streaming their IP backlist.

Now Nielsen has begun to measure Netflix. And right in the nick of time too. In a presentation last December to the international media conference organizer asi, Nielsen’s Brian Fuhrer reported that nearly two-thirds of all U.S. homes are capable of streaming, and that among those homes, 53 percent have access to Netflix, 31 percent have access to Amazon Prime and 13 percent have access to Hulu. Within homes capable of streaming, 11% of viewing is streamed content, or Subscription Video on Demand (SVOD).

Clearly streaming is a major source of television viewing, and it’s not just among cord cutters. This would explain the declining viewership of traditional television. And the impact would be even more obvious if video on devices were included, which is not the case now.

Nielsen’s actually had the capability of measuring Netflix for years. All they’re doing is measuring audio signatures, which is a core function of the people meter. However, none of the networks wanted to risk retaliation from Netflix and jeopardize a revenue stream by being the first to sign up for a new SVOD service.   This meant the launch of the service had to wait until a critical mass of Netflix partners had signed up, at which point they all held hands and jumped in the pool together.

Data from the new Nielsen service confirms what we always suspected and provided a few surprises as well. It’s completely expected that Netflix is the major source of streaming, with 43 percent of all streamed viewing. But it’s a little unexpected that YouTube is second with 12 percent of streamed viewing.

Nor is it a surprise that 25 percent of all teen viewing is streamed, although the fact that a fifth of all viewing by 25- to 34-year-olds is streamed has to be alarming to the traditional networks, since this is a key ad demographic.  And among specific shows, it’s interesting that two-thirds of the audience for the bleak “Bojack Horseman” is male; by contrast, women constitute two-thirds of the audience for the single-mom sitcom “Fuller House.”

Nielsen’s data also confirms that binging is a real thing that can have an impact on the rest of the TV universe. A massive hit like “Stranger Things” can dominate the living room TV during its premiere week and land four to five episodes in the top twenty list. Old-timers can remember when “Roots” swept the airwaves for eight consecutive nights in 1977. No show will ever draw audiences like that again, but binged hits like “Stranger Things” can clearly disrupt the rankings these days.

The Nielsen data seems to indicate that the “over the top” future predicted by media prophets has finally arrived. Will we see the collapse of media empires? One thing for sure is that all this great new content will have to come from somewhere. The media world survived and even thrived after the introduction of cable; my guess is that most of the same players will still be standing ten years from now, even with a larger mix of distribution systems.


Does anybody really know what time it is?  Does anyone care?  I know I don’t.  I’m increasingly living in a time-shifted dimension disconnected from time and season.

I realized how disconnected I am from live television a few weeks ago, when I sat down to watch HBO’s autism benefit and had no clue how to watch HBO live, despite being a 20-year subscriber.  I consume a lot of HBO content but almost always on HBO Go.  So when I wanted to watch the benefit, I couldn’t remember what, you know, “channel” the network was on, and had to go through the laborious process of finding that information from my cable provider’s website.

And then it occurred to me:  Except for sports and news, it’s been a long time since I watched any television show live.  In fact, I know the exact date I did so: Sunday, March 7, 2016, the series finale of “Downton Abbey.”  I was only watching live because I’d been recapping the show for a couple of years.  Before that, the last time I watched a show live because I absolutely HAD to was the series finale of “Mad Men.”

For the record, I’m not a cord-cutter.  We pay a lot to watch a full range of broadcast, cable, premium, and streaming channels.   I just don’t watch live.

This means I’ve lost complete track of when my favorite TV shows air and even what network they are on.  I literally have no idea what day “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” is on — never mind the time — and have to think hard to remember it’s on Fox.

The way we watch TV in our house is, we look at the DVR recording guide to see what shows are in the queue (“Oh, ‘Modern Family’ was on last night!”).  If nothing urgent is there, then we move on to HBO and Netflix.  And if I have a spare half hour and want to watch a screen but there’s nothing I particularly need to see on Netflix, the last thing I’d do is channel-surf.  Much more likely is that I’ll click over to YouTube and watch some favorite music videos, film clips or TV scenes.

People time-shift for many reasons.  The original draw for VCRs was that they allowed you to fast-forward through commercials — and go out in the evening and catch your favorite show when you came home.  Still, the understanding was that using a video recorder would be the exception, not the rule.

Two trends have pushed me into a full-time time-shifter.   First, with all the high quality television available today, everything I watch is “Must-See TV.”  I would never just turn on the TV and watch whatever’s on.

Just as important, the fragmentation of TV, with the broadcast network monopoly smashed to pieces, means I no longer feel compelled to watch a show when it’s live so I can talk about it with friends or colleagues the next day.  No one’s watching what I’m watching, so there’s no water-cooler chatter about TV.

It’s funny how easily old habits die.  I can barely recall what it was like to watch the clock to make sure I didn’t miss a favorite show.  And yet back when I was younger and had a vastly more active social life outside the house, I somehow managed to consume even more television than I do now.

What I can’t wrap my head around is whether I am an outlier or a harbinger of future viewing habits.  Clearly a lot of people are still watching live TV.  Nielsen’s most recent Total Audience Report shows that the average person still watches nearly four hours of TV a day.  That’s only down by about 15 minutes compared to the same period two years ago.   (This would be a good time to remind everyone that only about half the homes in America even have DVRs, and fewer subscribe to premium cable channels).

But I don’t feel unique as a full-time timeshifter, certainly not with a 25-year-old in the family.  He’s lived in his own apartment for three years and would no more own a television than a Sony Walkman.

So maybe I’m slightly ahead of the curve.  A decade ago I pish-poshed futurists who said that live TV would eventually go away.  But now that it’s happened to me, I’m not so sure.

After all, if an old-timer like me can abandon live TV, anyone can.

April tv

On Friday April 7, the New York Times Crossword offered this clue for a six-letter answer at 36-down: “When people meters are used.”  I am embarrassed to admit it was my wife who solved it for me: SWEEPS.

I have three reactions to this clue:

  1. Are People Meters really so well-known for delivering TV ratings that they can be used in a general interest crossword puzzle, even on a Friday?
  2. Not to get too nerdy, but People Meters are not used for sweeps. “Sweeps” are used to measure local markets that don’t have year-round measurement so local markets with People Meters by definition don’t have sweeps.  Paper diaries produce sweeps in non-People Meter markets. No wonder I didn’t get it! I was overthinking it.
  3. Huh. Sweeps. I haven’t thought about sweeps in years.

There was a time when TV was obsessed with sweeps.  The networks would cram all their best programming into the four sweeps periods of November, February, May and July because the ratings for these months would set advertising rates for local TV stations for the rest of the year.  If you had a character who was going to be killed, married or born, you’d do it during sweeps.

Not anymore.  Sweeps ceased to be a major factor a dozen years ago when Nielsen implemented Local People Meters in the largest local markets. And when Nielsen finally phases out diaries next year, sweeps as we have known them for decades will essentially cease to exist.

The clearest indication of the anachronism of sweeps is all the good programming now being aired in April, which is not a sweeps month.  I would go so far as to argue that the week of April 16-23, definitely not a sweeps period, is the best single week for scripted television in years.  Consider the shows running last week: “Girls,” “Veep,” “The Leftovers,” “Silicon Valley,” “Billions,” “Better Call Saul,” “Dr. Who,” “The Americans,” “Fargo” and “Archer.”  My DVR is about to explode.

None of those series are affected by sweeps since they are on cable, but even the networks are serving up a cornucopia of quality programming this month: “Modern Family,” “blackish,” “New Girl,” “Saturday Night Live,” “The Daily Show With Stephen Colbert.” NBC is debuting its new Tina Fey show “Great News” later in the month.

And of course April has seen the return of the baseball season, the launch of the NBA and NHL play-offs, and the Masters.  That’s a lot of TV to watch considering that spring is here and those of us in northern climates are starting to enjoy longer, warmer days.

It’s not just a coincidence involving production schedules that so much great television is airing in April; TV’s evolving business model and its award schedule are responsible.

Until pretty recently, the average TV season comprised 22-26 episodes and the big money came when the series had accumulated about 100 episodes that could be sold for syndication.  So the traditional TV season would kick off in September and end in May, with the episodes essentially spanning those nine months.

A lot of network shows still aim for 22-week seasons but not all.  Season one of NBC’s “The Good Place” comprised only 13 episodes and seems destined for Netflix instead of syndication.  And 13-episode seasons are the norm on cable, although “Girls” and “Veep” have only ten.  When you have 10- or 13-episode seasons you might as well concentrate them in the fall or spring instead of stretching them through the year. If by the end of the series you only have 40 or 50 episodes you can sell it to Netflix or Amazon, which need the content.

Then there’s the impact of the Emmys.  To qualify for an Emmy at least half a season’s episodes need to run by May 31, so April becomes to TV what December is for the movies – the launching pad for award contenders. Presumably the thinking is that Emmy voters are more likely to remember prestige shows that recently aired than ones that ran last fall.

So what we really have now are two seasons of TV: the Money Season, filled with highly rated procedurals, football, prime time soap operas, awards shows, reality shows and other programs that pay the bills; and the Prestige Season, with critically acclaimed but low-rated “quality” television that bring honor and acclaim to a network.

I guess I shouldn’t complain but after months of desperately searching for something interesting to watch, I am now overwhelmed by the bounty of great shows.  I’ll probably still be catching up in July.



The long football season comes to an end on Sunday with the annual nacho-fueled spectacle that is the Super Bowl.  It’s been a tough year for the NFL and its declining ratings, which means that it’s been a tough year for network television, which relies on the appeal of live viewing events to ward off cord-cutting.

The ratings decline was particularly severe in the beginning of the season when viewing declined by double-digit percentages.  Everyone had an opinion on this phenomenon, my own being that it was caused by an over-saturation of football, a lot of mediocre games, and a lack of positive story lines following the retirement of Peyton Manning, the suspension of Tom Brady and the underwhelming performance of other high-profile quarterbacks.

Of course anything as highly visible as pro football quickly becomes a huge target upon which we act out our personal obsessions, and in a white hot election year, the NFL quickly became tangled up in the political correctness debate, thanks to Colin Kaepernick’s refusal to stand during the national anthem.

I don’t think that the Kaepernick controversy actually eroded football viewing but it significantly infuriated many of the game’s most important constituencies and wiped out decades of effort by the league to wrap itself in the flag.  It got to a point where the right-wing Drudge Report was actively gloating each week about low NFL ratings.   When a lot of conservative white guys are actively rooting for your ratings to go down, you’re in a bad place if you’re a major sports league.

For its part, the NFL tried to blame the ratings slump on the election, the theory being, I suppose, that fans were out attending Donald Trump rallies on Sundays instead of staying home to watch football.   They claimed vindication of a sorts when it turned out that ratings were “only” down two percent in the six weeks after the election.    (Personally I think that it wasn’t until the final third of the season that the interesting storylines emerged.)

Better still for the NFL have been the play-offs.  When there was a good game the fans watched.  When the games stunk they didn’t.  For example, the thrilling Cowboys-Packers game on January 15, featuring two high-profile quarterbacks and a down-to-the-wire victory, was the most-watched NFL divisional play-off game ever.

For me, though, the relevant question is not why football ratings slumped this year but why they’ve soaring for the past few years in the first place?  In the last decade, football went from being a very popular sport to a hugely popular one.  For years and years the final episode of “M.A.S.H.” reigned supreme as the most-watched broadcast of all time, but since 2010 the Super Bowl has broken that record seven straight times.

And what’s particularly surprising about this rise in popularity is that it occurred just as we were coming to terms with the human cost of the concussions and other injuries inflicted on the players for our enjoyment.  Far from being turned off by literally watching fellow human beings beat their brains to mush, the American public actually embraced the sport even more enthusiastically.

For football to become more popular it had to expand its appeal beyond existing fans and convert casual viewers to regular ones.  It was able to do this via the rise in fantasy sports and online gambling, which gave fans a reason to watch more games with more intensity.  Even more important was the emergence of a new generation of charismatic quarterbacks who became the face of the league in the same way that Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and Michael Jordan revived the fortunes of the NBA in the 1980s.

In other words, the biggest threat to football’s long-term health isn’t cord-cutting but the poor quality of quarterbacks coming out of college.  Because college football is increasingly dominated by spread offenses and no-huddle play, recent QB prospects are not prepared to lead an NFL offense.  With Manning retired and Brady, Aaron Rogers, Tony Romo and Drew Brees growing long in the tooth, the NFL has been unable to nurture a new generation of appealing superstars.

There will be one more chance to check-in on the health of the NFL this year.  If the Super Bowl sets yet another record for viewership this year, the league will be able to breathe a sigh of relief that football remains hugely popular despite the hiccups in the beginning of the season.  And with much of the nation wondering whether Tom Brady will be in a position to smash the Lombardi trophy into the face of Commissioner Roger Goodell, that might just happen.




brady-foot-locker-commercialI recently realized that although I never watch live TV and aggressively fast-forward through commercials, I am still surprisingly familiar with a lot of ads: the Tom Brady Foot Locker ad; The Amy Schumer Old Navy commercial; the Ariana Grande T-Mobile spot.  I know about Flo from Progressive, the GEICO lizard and the Toyotathon. How do I know about them if I never watch commercials?

The media would have us believe that no one watches ads. But obviously someone sees a lot of them.  Nielsen’s C3 rating is a measure of ad viewing and even with competition from smartphones and whatnot, those aggregate ratings are remarkably high.  Those of us who “never” watch commercials think it must be all those other dumbbells out there who engage in the retrograde practice of ad watching

Or is it?  How many of us are deluding ourselves?

Speaking for myself, if pressed, I would concede that, yes, I actually do watch some (ok maybe more than some) live TV through sports and news shows.  And even if you only watch one football game a week you are still exposed to a ton of ads.

Scripted programming is also a surprising source of ad viewing, even for those who give their DVR a good workout because people aren’t as disciplined as they think about fast-forwarding through ads.

Ever since Nielsen began measuring commercial viewing it has been a rule of thumb that only about half of viewers fast-forward through commercials. But if everyone believes they’re the ones who zip through the ads there’s going to be a good deal of self-deception.

The reality of those Nielsen numbers is that among DVR users, some skip all ads, some don’t bother to fast-forward at all, and a great many skip some ads but watch others depending on their mood, energy level, or affinity for the ad.

At my house, what usually happens when we’re watching a DVR’d show is that when the commercial pod comes on I’ll watch the first 15 or 20 seconds in a stupor before my wife yells that we’re watching a commercial for cripes sake.  I’ll fast forward, usually stopping half-way through the pod because I think the show is finally coming on, only to discover that what I thought was the resumption of the show was actually another ad.  So after watching another 15 seconds of ads, I’ll continue my fast-forwarding, and land about a minute into the show. Then I’ll have to rewind, arriving this time about a half-minute back into the middle of the commercials. Commercial avoidance is a lot of work.

Am I the only one who thinks the precision of the DVR fast-forward function has degraded over time?  When we had our first DVR I used to be able to zoom through the commercials and land precisely at the second when the show started up again.  Now I can end up half a minute ahead or half a minute behind the resumption of the show because the technology has become so imprecise.  In other words, I watch a lot more ads than I realize because I usually give up trying to avoid them.

The other reason I watch recorded commercials is that sometimes they are so good I actually want to watch them.  The new Amazon ad about the priest and the imam sending each other knee pads for praying is something I’ll always watch it to the end whenever it’s on.  Same with the iPhone 7 ad with balloons floating throughout the city accompanied by a beautiful cover version of “I will follow you.” In fact it’s a huge irony that the best TV ads are now being produced by the same high tech companies (i.e., Google, Microsoft, Apple, Facebook and Amazon) that have done so much to undermine the television business model.  They, at least, seem to recognize the power of television advertising.

And speaking of digital media, one place I do not enjoy seeing ads is online.  A two-minute commercial pod during a streaming TV show seems so much longer than a two-minute ad on TV.  When you’re watching an ad on TV you can get up and walk into the kitchen for a glass of water or go to the bathroom, but when you’re watching an online commercial you feel compelled to sit in front of your PC or to hold your smartphone in your hand doing a slow burn until the show resumes.

In 1984, the most memorable moment during the Democratic primaries occurred when Walter Mondale confronted Gary Hart during a debate and said that his policies reminded him of the woman in the Wendy’s commercial who asked “Where’s the beef?” It was a devastating put-down because Hart’s proposals seemed Utopian and lacking specifics.  And it was particularly damaging because everyone understood the reference to the ad.

In 2016, there was no similar advertising reference that any politician could cite to undermine a rival because TV ads no longer offer a common cultural connection.  But that doesn’t mean we don’t watch a lot of ads.  In fact, when I’m fast-forwarding through the commercial pod I almost always recognize ads that I’ve already seen dozens of times.  There are more ads than ever before and even the biggest snob who claims never to watch commercials is kidding himself.




The recent news that Nielsen intends to eliminate paper diaries from the 140 ratings markets in which they are currently being used was met with relief in some quarters and with incredulity in others that such antediluvian methods were still being deployed to generate TV ratings this late into the 21st Century. For me, however, it brought back memories from more than a decade ago, when Nielsen first announced its intention to phase them out by 2011.

Paper diaries harken back to the dawn of the television age when there were only a handful of TV networks and viewers could generally be counted on to remember what channels they watched throughout the day.  But even back then, Nielsen founder Art Nielsen was always searching for a better electric measurement system that would record what people actually watched instead of what they said they watched.

Fast forward to June 2006.  Coming off a bruising fight with News Corp over the introduction of the Local People Meters that replaced these same paper diaries in the top ten local markets, Nielsen faced an even more implacable foe: the Internet.  People were beginning to find new ways to watch TV online and Nielsen needed a plan to adapt.

The result was an initiative called Anywhere Anytime Media Measurement, aka A2M2.  Looking back on that plan ten years later is a reminder of how visionary corporate aspirations are often restrained by more mundane considerations such as cost, technology and clients.  For example, it eventually turned out that clients weren’t interested in paying Nielsen to measure viewing outside the home (although that is apparently back on the table again.)  And when it further turned out that iPods (remember them?) wouldn’t become the primary vehicle for mobile viewing, Nielsen dropped the quest to develop a “go meter”.  On the plus side, Nielsen did eventually integrate Internet viewing into its ratings, and it did expand the number of local markets measured with People Meters.

The nut it couldn’t crack was the complete elimination of diaries.  Nielsen’s ratings CEO Susan Whiting had pushed for a deadline of introducing electronic measurement in all local markets by 2011, reasoning that the Nielsen staff would be motivated into action by an aggressive but firm deadline.  I was the PR representative on the A2M2 team so I can testify that they were motivated, and yet the 2011 deadline came and went with diaries as firmly entrenched as ever.

It wasn’t for lack of trying.  For at least a couple of years, the A2M2 team met every Friday morning via a conference call between the project managers in the company’s business headquarters in New York City and its technology headquarters in Oldsmar Florida.  They considered and tested a number of options, including a “mailable meter” that would be sent to viewers in lieu of a diary, placed next to a TV for a month where it would record what shows were being watched, and then returned to Nielsen for transcription.

A lot of work went into developing and testing this mailable meter, including research into packaging and shipping, but in the end it wasn’t good enough or cheap enough to replace diaries.  Because here’s the thing about diaries: they are really cheap. Nielsen lost money measuring many of these markets but it lost less than it would have with electronic measurement.

Here’s the other thing about diaries: they hung around so long because a lot of the people who pay the bills (i.e., the local stations) didn’t really want to change if it meant lower ratings.  TV viewers are most likely to mark down the big-name shows they “usually” watch and those are typically network shows, which inflates their ratings, so there was an incentive to maintain the status quo.

Or at least there used to be.  In a world of streaming, video playback, on-demand, channel-switching, premium cable stations, and limited attention spans, viewers are less likely to remember anything they watch, even the six o’clock news, and the diaries have finally lost any credibility among advertisers.   The incentive for abandoning diaries is finally larger than it is for keeping them.

What’s coming instead is something that’s been in Nielsen’s toolbox for years – fusing together different datasets, including return path data from set top boxes and data from other electronic sources like the National People Meter sample.   The flaws of set top box data are numerous, including a lack of representativeness and no information on which person in the house is watching, but at this point anything would be better than paper diaries.

The adoption of fusion data based on modeling different datasets is a significant development.  Until now, almost all TV ratings have been based on quantifiable data from scientifically selected panels that can be double-checked.  You can go back and see how many people actually pushed People Meter buttons in a market or wrote in particular programs in their diaries.  There’s even a room at Nielsen’s Oldsmar facility where station managers can go to review the individual diaries from their markets and confirm that, yes, this 53-year-old white woman really did watch “The Wheel of Fortune” instead of “Jeopardy.”  You can’t do that when data from set-top boxes are funneled into a computer, fused with other data, and modeled using an algorithm that only a handful of data scientists can understand.

Welcome to the 21st Century.  I’m sure my former Nielsen colleagues are thrilled they’ve finally convinced the market to phase out diaries, which symbolized the old, analog Nielsen in a digital age.  That’s an image no one wanted.

The new target date for eliminating diaries is now 2018, seven years after the first deadline.  But I’d bet on Nielsen making this one.  Not only is the technology there but so is the marketplace.