What are Nielsen diaries really like?

This week, I emailed back and forth with Bob Sellers (@TV_Agent_Bob on Twitter) with Media Stars.  He shared a link to an excellent article he wrote for the Huffington Post about being a Nielsen family.  It really explains what families are asked to do, when keeping a diary and some imperfections that can cost shows ratings.  As I read the article I was fascinated with all the scenarios that lead to some shows not getting mentioned (even though they were watched) in a diary and why.   Sellers also discussed changing formats in order to gain audience when people typically change the channel.  Producers, read that article for that section.  Great food for thought when tweeking your own rundown.

The article also made me think about the time I went to a Nielsen office.  I actually got to thumb through diaries about a newscast for which I was supposed to raise the ratings.  I went with several other news managers, a promotions manager and the producer of the show.   It was humbling and scary.  The incredible amount of misspellings and grammatical errors were unnerving when you thought of all the hard work and agonizing hours to get people to watch the newscasts.  Then I noticed several mentions of my station’s anchors, by first and last name, listed under the wrong station call letters!  When we quizzed a Nielsen employee about this we were told the call letters were what got credit.  It was devastating and maddening.  We already felt like we made the anchors and reporters say the station’s name too often on the air.  It sounded robotic.  But still, so many diaries had the station channel number or call letters wrong.

Most fascinating for me though, was reading the notes about why people watched what they did.  That’s the section I was in charge of concentrating on.  These diaries were supposed to give me insight into what the viewers liked and wanted more of from our newscasts.  So many of the answers were so strange, that I feared I would not see any tangible solutions to raise our ratings.  For example, one diary mentioned the person loved when anchors wore a specific color.  That was the determining factor for watching a newscast on a given day.  After a lot of reading, I was able to glean some useful information.  Some diaries mentioned there was nothing worth watching after 10 minutes into the newscasts, or wished weather came on at a different time.  These elements did help us make some changes.

The biggest take away for the group of us was how casual the viewer seemed about the one thing we spent all our waking moments focusing on:  the actual news.  If they saw a newscast great, if they didn’t that was o.k. also.  Time and again we read comments to the effect of:  “I watch news three times a week because there’s so little new that happens.”  Makes you think a little more about those follow up filler vo’s doesn’t it?  How about the “throwaway” last 10 minutes of an 11pm newscast?  You know the block where we’re told the ratings “don’t matter.”  Well, maybe they do matter, even if viewers sometimes cannot spell or get your station call letters right.  Those same people can control your destiny.  I got a big introduction to how those decisions are made that day.  Don’t underestimate how fickle your audience really is.  Make sure that your newscast truly stands out and is memorable.  Oh, and don’t forget the call letters!