MELISSA BLOCK, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
On television, good Nielson ratings can mean good commercial sales, which can mean multiple seasons, maybe even eternal reruns. Bad Nielson ratings bring to mind Marlon Brando's line from "On the Waterfront," a one-way ticket to Palookaville. Cancellation. You may sometimes wonder who are those Nielson families who are judge and jury of television shows? Well, here is some news about them. Their college student children suddenly count for the first time.
Ken Auletta is media critic for the New Yorker and joins us. Hello, Ken.
Mr. KEN AULETTA (The New Yorker): Hi.
SIEGEL: Nielson is for the first time counting college students. Why didn't they count them before? Do you know?
Mr. AULETTA: You know, we're talking not about a science but an art here. It's not like you do on the Internet, where you could judge a number of clicks that someone makes and do it with exactitude. Television, it's like a poll - you're taking a guess. And even though their televisions are on in people's homes that you're measuring, you don't know whether they're actually watching it, and more important to advertisers, whether they're watching the ads.
SIEGEL: And until now, I gather, Nielson was not interested - and now it's trying to make up some ground here - in the television viewing that people do at the gym or in - I assume in the restaurant or in the dormitory.
Mr. AULETTA: Or more particularly, on college campuses. So there's always a complaint when a network's ratings are low. They complain that they should be higher because Nielson is not counting all the people they should be. Well, Nielson agreed that they're not properly counting college students, so now they're going to attempt to do that.
But even then, it's not a science. Because if you can determine that the college student's television is on, it doesn't necessarily mean they're watching that television. They maybe multitasking, as young people tend to do - maybe listening to their iPod, doing instant messaging or just having it on like, their television on like wallpaper.
SIEGEL: Well, if we were suddenly to measure, which is what Nielson's going to do, what they're tuned to in college campuses and that purported viewing is added to what is already discovered or reported in families' homes, I gather, that are part of the Nielson survey, what do you think might happen? What might be the effect?
Mr. AULETTA: Well, what will probably happen is that shows that reach a younger audience, a college age audience, that their ratings will climb. I mean, for instance, it's very possible that Comedy Central and some of its offerings like Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert, some of the cartoon networks, their ratings will jump. And if that happens, then obviously their advertising rates jumps, so that's good news for them. But if their ratings jump, that means that someone else's ratings may decline.
And those people will cry murder. And that's one of the problems with Nielson. Nielson is paid by its customers. They're paid by the advertisers and their paid by the networks to measure the audience. If you don't like the size of the audience that Nielson measures, you blame the messenger. Nielson gets shot a lot by these networks and advertisers.
SIEGEL: I thought that the advertising people who watch ratings are obsessed with 18- to 34-year-olds because their brand loyalties aren't yet settled. Wouldn't this inclusion of college students, even if its only adding a minority to the group already sampled, wouldn't that give still more weight to young people's taste?
Mr. AULETTA: Yes, it would. And if you find that ratings for certain shows or networks rise dramatically, then obviously they would get more advertising dollars. That will please the advertising community. But it also means that the programming will change, inevitably, because you will find more that programs that skew older may not get picked up the next year, and so it could have an impact on programming as well as on advertisers as well as the health of certain networks and the harm of others.
SIEGEL: Well, Ken Auletta, thanks a lot for talking with us -
Mr. AULETTA: My pleasure.
SIEGEL: - about this inclusion of college students in the Nielsen media research sample of television viewing. Ken Auletta is the media critic for the New Yorker.
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