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Have You Met My Big Brother, Nielsen?

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While at dinner last night one of my friends let slip that she is one of the “chosen” people to own a Nielsen Rating system in her home. As someone who has been intrigued about Nielsen ratings, and more importantly, why some of my favorite shows get canceled, I grilled her about the process. Apparently, the special box attached to her television has a switch to indicate when she or her boyfriend is watching TV, so they know which demographic is tuning into the programming being viewed. She also has to let her TV know every 40-something minutes that she’s still watching (similar to how Pandora Radio “doesn’t like playing to an empty room”) so it’s not tracking that she watched 12 hours of a Home Improvement marathon if she accidentally leaves the TV on. It also collects data from live viewing and DVR viewing to maintain accuracy, and only counts the DVR material as valuable once it is actually viewed by the consumer.

Sounds pretty straightforward, but because I know everything, I started ranting about how Nielsen ratings are unreliable as they aren’t accountable for the many portable devices that we now watch programming on. (Don’t worry, I definitely know more than the thousands of people who work with Nielsen ratings on a daily basis because I will occasionally watch an episode of 30 Rock on my computer. And I read things about TV sometimes.) But here’s something that shocked me – she also opted to have Nielsen attach a device to her computer so they can track all of her internet activity. While this seems too invasive for me, we were talking about why this is an interesting and cool way for Nielsen to track what their viewers are doing. Not only can it keep track of which network sites are visited and which shows are watched online through services like Hulu, it could also potentially help with a variety of other marketing quandaries.

Interestingly, it can track which actors and actresses are highly sought-after. If I am surfing websites about the Kardashians while watching Kourtney and Khloe Take Miami, it is a good indication that I am highly involved with the program. Or, should I watch Dawson’s Creek on repeat and Google Joshua Jackson’s current projects, it could be a good message for people casting new shows to consider bringing back Pacey.

Watching these activities can also help determine which activities people do while watching television. Are people shopping online while watching Gossip Girl? Or searching for local rental properties during home makeover shows? Or maybe they’re Tweeting about their favorite Modern Family character. Whatever they’re doing, it can help create more finely-honed marketing campaigns for television viewers.

While some advertisements are passive and simply projected at the viewer, many television ads use some sort of immediate call-to-action for viewers, which is often to visit a website. With Nielsen keeping an eye on computer activity we can see which campaigns are actually responded to, rather than solely using site traffic statistics.

This is just the beginning of uses for this monitoring tool, and while I can’t be certain how they’re using this data, it is comforting to know they’re trying to keep an eye on television watching through our various mobile devices. It’s probably because they knew that I was onto them…