Dimling, Nielsen Media Research
Charles Ferris, former chair,
Toby Miller, NYU
Moderator: William Uricchio,
audiorecording of The
Future of Television is now available.
divided the history of audience measurement into three periods.
In the first phase, from the inception of television in the late
1940s through the mid 1970s, the era of the three dominant networks
was the time of the captive audience. The second phase, the cable
era, lasting until 2000, offered many choices for audiences. The
last phase, in its embryonic stages in the early years of the 21st
century, is an era in which the audience itself will exercise control
over television viewing.Dimling discussed each period in terms of
its infrastructure, programming and viewer response.
In the first
era, television mostly consisted of the "Big Three" networks.
Until the early 1970s the typical household could receive an average
of seven signals. The average rating for a network was 18.8, meaning
it was watched by 18.8% of TV households. An average household tuned
in about 6 hours a day. Nielsen obtained data in these ways: a panel
of 1,200 households used meters, while 2,400 other households kept
During the second
period, cable networks emerged and began to produce original programming.
In 1980, cable penetration was 20%; by 2000 it was 80%. In 1980,
a household received an average of 10 signals; today it receives
about 102. Although viewers watched more television than ever before,
the audience for network programming decreased as the number of
cable channels enlarged.
forced Nielsen to increase the size of its sample and change its
methods of data collection. The standard method became the use of
the "people meter," rather than the diaries. The meter
required simply the push of a button to monitor what viewer choices;
respondents did not have to identify the source of programming.
response to the increasing popularity of Univision and Telemundo,
Nielsen introduced a separate system for measuring Hispanic audiences.
Today, the infrastructure
is becoming digital. Dimling expects that audiences for networks
will continue to decline, while those for cable will increase. The
biggest change will be in the degree of control people have over
what they watch. Personal Video Recorders such as TiVo allow viewers
total freedom from the time schedules of the networks and also permit
them to eliminate commercials. In the future, PVR capabilities that
are built into set top cable boxes may enable targeted commercials.
It is uncertain how fast these changes will occur, but Dimling does
not believe these devices will cause the death of the 30-second
commercial. Many people fast-forward through commercials, but they
will still be around, though decreasing in effectiveness.
Nor will the
Internet destroy TV viewing. Streaming video on the Internet is
used mainly for information, not entertainment. For example, visits
to news sites increased dramatically during the current war in Iraq.
Nielsen is developing
new techniques. They have a new meter that can measure multicasting.
They are also working with TiVo to put data collection software
in the PVR devices.
People move around between programs a lot. Does the meter account
The current meter measures every 3 seconds, which means we don't
record every single flip, but we can record what station you are
tuned into at every interval.
Do program makers use this information?
Yes they do; and we think that will increase in popularity. We have
always offered a minute-by-minute analysis. Nielsen data increases
efficiency in two markets: viewer time traded for entertainment,
and producers trading viewer time for dollars. For example, data
shows whether TV advertising works. Both markets use the data to
operate more efficiently.
Has your client base changed over time?
It's certainly expanded over the 50 years. Networks and ad agencies
are traditionally clients. Now cable networks, syndicates, and cable
systems are clients as well. Essentially, anyone operating a business
in the television industry has use for our data.
Has Nielsen tried to develop new kinds of data?
"No," in the sense that we always measure who is watching
TV, but "Yes," in the sense that we offer new ways to
look at the data, as well as other demographic information.
How representative is the sample that you take of the total viewing
population? Is it skewed toward viewers that advertisers would be
more interested in?
This is an important issue that we spend a lot of time and money
on. Our sample is quite representative. Our response rate is over
60%, which is high for commercial research. There are various parts
of the population that are harder to recruit, but we take extra
efforts to recruit them. But we are not skewed. For example, advertisers
are generally less interested in people 55 and older, yet we have
a representative number of that group, so it's a very good national
Your database has incredible historical value. Is it archived and
publicly accessible? Do you collect qualitative data as well, such
as through focus groups?
Nielsen has archived most of the basic data. The first 30-35 years
are mostly hard copy and is more difficult to access. The later
stuff is saved electronically. We will continue our new system that
gives people direct access to the database.
We don't have
much qualitative data in terms of program preferences, but we get
some information about purchase behavior. We have done studies of
people after they left the sample, as part of special analysis for
special clients, but it's not usually published. We are reluctant
to do anything with a household in the current sample that may discourage
began with an anecdote. When he first became chairman of the
FCC in 1977, the CEO of Warner Cable Gus Hauser demonstrated an
interactive cable system that could scan TV sets every 15 seconds
to determine what people were watching - and this scared him. Ferris
fears there is an increasing loss of privacy today.
Ferris is reluctant
to make predictions about the future of television or any medium
because some regulators make decisions in order to make their predictions
come true, which is dangerous. The real challenge of a regulator
is to remain intellectually uncommitted, and to recognize that the
technology will drive changes.
a brief historical account of media regulation in the U.S. The regulatory
regime established in the 1920s and in the era of radio remained
essentially in force until the 1980s. In the beginning, federal
regulation was born of necessity. Radio, and later television, was
an effective and inexpensive means of mass communication. Before
the late 1920s, broadcasting was not regulated. Private entities
rushed to fill the airwaves, and Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover
did not have the power to limit the number of licenses, nor did
he want to. He was pro-business and believed the broadcast spectrum
should not be controlled by a select few.
By 1927 there
was chaos. There were over 700 broadcast stations. Though this is
a small number compared to today's 13,500 stations, they were packed
into two frequencies and concentrated in the East Coast. People
felt federal regulation was the only solution.
The Radio Act
of 1927 created the Federal Radio Commission, ancestor of the FCC,
and established federal control of broadcasting. Its enabling principle
-- to serve the "public convenience, interest, or necessity"
-- established the notion that broadcasting should serve a public
or civic interest. The principle that the broadcast spectrum belongs
to the public was the essence of the regulations to follow. However,
as technology provided more TV and radio stations, many believed
that market competition would preserve public interest. Thus began
a new era of deregulation.
One of the last
FCC actions during Ferris's tenure was removal of regulations on
radio. One such regulation was a limit of 17 minutes per hour for
advertisements. The result, Ferris said, has been a damaging increase
in commercials. Ferris believes that broadcasters are not simply
economic entities; they are public trustees, and as such they have
social responsibilities. Excessive deregulation will be harmful
not believe that the broadcast world is doomed. There might be a
second "Big Bang" of media channels that will be associated
with the Internet, and there won't be any gatekeepers. In general,
he believes that things will sort out because viewers have a lot
of common sense. However, determining the reliability of information
will be the real problem.
Last week, the CEO of a large broadcasting group lobbied to
eliminate the limitations on a group's holdings in a media market.
He says that conglomerates are dominant now and small independent
stations have no chance of survival. What's your take on that?
Clear Channel is an example: They have about 1,100 radio stations
out of 13,000. Meanwhile, the FCC decided in June to lift the consolidation
requirements for TV. The mistake is to believe that all decisions
are merely economic or financial. Broadcasting must have a public
or civic aspect. It's about who's actually going to program the
minds of the American people. Around 22% of people get their information
from talk radio, but it's largely dominated by a single political
What do you think about the current set of proposed deregulations
regarding cross-media conglomeration? What should happen?
It's inevitable that such barriers will come down. My successor
Mark Fowler was the first agenda-driven FCC chair. He was open about
his anti-regulation bias. That really affected how the FCC worked.
Fowler's knowledge in advance of what he was planning got the Congress
interested in telecom policy. Now, the FCC and Congress interact
too much, as far as I'm concerned.
What lessons do you draw from peer-to-peer music sharing? Will that
kind of chaos in file sharing and threat to intellectual property
come to TV? Is there something in the regulatory history, VCRs for
example, which can offer a lesson for the current climate?
At the birth of the VCR, I used to debate with Jack Valenti, who
represented the Motion Picture Association. I argued that the VCR
would be Hollywood's best friend, and I was right. Video releases
are pushing number one. Most of those issues were based on copyright
laws. The philosophy behind copyright law is the notion that a creator
should be rewarded for his creativity. The only reason why the government
gives long copyrights is to encourage wide dissemination and let
ideas be open to the public. Copyright will always be a contentious
issue. I cannot predict what the resolution will be.
began with two famous statements by past FCC Chairs. The first is
Minnow, who called U.S. broadcast TV of the 1960's "a vast
wasteland." Miller believes that this was part of the Cold
War rhetoric of the time, and a reminder to the big three networks
of their public responsibility.
The other quote
is by Mark Fowler, also a chairman of the FCC, who called television
"a toaster with pictures." This statement made in the
1980's implied that TV was empty, because it was dominated by Hollywood
stories designed to appeal to an array of white ethnic cultures.
This reflects the emptiness that a liberal culture can produce,
that if television was a wasteland in the 60's and a toaster in
the 80's, then today U.S. television is three things: a bank, a
couch, and a landfill.
is a bank. If you turn to news today, the tendency is to engage
in "financialization," or to value in monetary terms of
all kinds of activities. This was seen after September 11th in how
there was a great deal of time devoted to discussing the economic
impact of terrorism. Today, basic economic knowledge is required
for all current affairs reporters. On channels such as CNBC and
MSNBC, the value of public activities is understood in fiscal terms.
Cultural perspectives are subordinated to the monetary.
also become a couch, an environment for the emotionalization of
discourse. There is an increasing domestic emphasis in mainstream
news. This is part of a wider tendency to ask people how they feel
about things. For example, in interviews with NBA players, you might
learn that they felt God was with them during a game, but you won't
learn anything about tactics or actual performance. This trivialization
of mainstream coverage is problematic.
has become a landfill. By this metaphor, Miller wishes to call attention
to the way in which the physical object of the TV set is made and
used: where and how it is manufactured, where it travels, and what
happens to it in its afterlife as a cast-off relic, part of a landfill.
Most TVs are
made by women under dangerous conditions in Third World countries
such as China. After the finished products are consumed by the First
World, it is illegal to dump them in most U.S. landfills because
they contain dangerous substances. So they go back to China where
this time, children of six or eight take the machines apart without
wearing any protection; the dangerous, unwanted parts are dumped
into a Chinese landfill. This is something almost no one in media
studies has paid attention to, because most people concern themselves
with the female subjectivities of viewers and consumers, rather
than those who are making and disposing our TVs. In talking about
the future of television, it is crucial to see it as an environmental
entity, not just as programming or technology.
We seem to be going toward "fantasy television," where
there is no representation of "the other." The representation
of the recent war in Iraq seems a lot like a video game, where everything
has been created within a specific set. Is there any reality left?
The problem with U.S. coverage wasn't so much about simulation,
but the myth of objectivity by embedded reporters, when in fact
journalists got solely one side of the story. With deregulation
and the collapse of a unified audience, and because news and current
events had never really made money for networks, foreign news bureaus
were closed everywhere. In 2000, only the stories of the second
Intifada and Elian Gonzalez were really covered with any seriousness
in terms of international issues, but both are, in a sense, domestic
Have you done studies of Latino TV representation? Is more multicultural
I studied the distribution of Mexican films in the U.S. I found
it hard to measure the audience because unlike any other ethnic
group, Spanish-speaking immigrants are constantly regenerated with
new migrants. The obvious obstacle I found to Mexican cinema was
racism among media makers. However, some better things may arise
from Miami, which is commercially driven to be the new core of capital
linked to media and the Latin community.
I want to add to the issue of TV as a landfill: It's apparent that
there will be an environmental crisis around the world. There's
a deadline set for the full transition from analog to digital TV,
which is currently 2006. Digital TVs will make hundreds of millions
of analog TVs obsolete and dumped.
That is a very potent observation. However, I doubt we will be all
digital by 2006, despite contemporary enthusiasm. But it is a huge
Are there new advertising models that can support higher quality,
I hope so. The big money is from national advertisers.
There is a study done by Peter Steiner, which said the more channels
you have, the more diversity you have. In general, I think the concept
is valid. I don't know the numbers, but I do believe that as technology
allows more programs to be presented, the probability of having
what you're seeking increases.
I must say that's counterintuitive to me. When CNN came out, I thought
that it was an extraordinary distributor of news, akin to the AP
wire - no editorializing, just the straight news. But as "diversity"
increased, you get a cloning phenomenon: CNN has degraded tremendously
since the advent of MSNBC and others. Like talk radio, they're in
the business of pandering the worse instincts of people - emotionalism
not based upon fact, but opinion. The big problem came with the
merger of news and entertainment. Dan Rather tells you on 60 Minutes
what's going to be on Monday night's news! How does he do that?
I think we're talking about a couple of different things; all of
us may share a common view of talk radio, but it does represent
a voice that wasn't in the media before, like it or not.
For John Dimling, how is Nielsen preparing for new changes coming
to TV such as video-on-demand? How does the unit of media share
change when you have an infinitely growing amount of media to be
It's not easy, but we'll be able to stay on top of what people are
watching. If you're accessing an episode from a year ago, if we
have a code in that program, we can still pick up on that. How we
report it is something we're starting to talk about with advertisers
and clients. For example, if Coca-Cola's running a summer promotion,
your winter viewing probably isn't worth very much.
This is more of an observation than a question. Regardless of how
we measure what people are watching, we should get back to political
and economic equation of who produces shows, for whom, and within
what movements. We should also compare dominant and alternate programming.
And we should think about how you can't always capture certain subcultural
--compiled by Lilly
--photos by Nicole Burkart and Lilly Kam