Magazine

AC Nielsen Jr and the changing face of TV

AC Nielsen Jr died this week at age 92. As the head of the ACNielsen company, he analysed the way Americans watched TV for more than 50 years. Television scholar Robert Thompson discusses his legacy.

Image caption Nielsen ratings were the main way for television programs to attract to advertisers

The name Nielsen has simply become synonymous with the success or failure of a television program. Even more so than words like Xerox and Kleenex, "the ratings" and "Nielsen" are for the most part the same thing.

It never really mattered that their method was not scientifically exactly the amount of people that were watching. What mattered was that everybody used the same numbers. That was the reason Nielsen dominated and to this day they continue to dominate.

When AC Nielsen Sr started, he was doing tracking studies for food stores. They were also getting into the use of computers decades and decades ago, long before the digital age and the age of personal computers.

They got into TV in 1950. When AC Nielsen Jr came on, he took a company that was doing coupon and subscription data and institutionalised and established it into the company we know today.

What Nielsen said is: "Here is a number, here is how many people are watching, and here is how it relates to all other shows."

Television is not a science. It is showbiz, and showbiz does not behave in predictable ways. In an industry as nebulous and mercurial and confusing and unpredictable as television, raw hard numerical data is like catnip. It's something you can sink your teeth into.

Even though Nielsen started out way ahead of its time in some of its techniques, once it got established it tended to be relatively slow in responding to changes in technology and in viewership.

It took a while, but now there's the measurement of DVR (digital video recorder). You can get a rating and you can get a rating plus seven. This means how many watched while it was on, and includes how many watched in the next seven days on the DVR boxes.

Like anything else the ratings business is in the midst of vast, cataclysmic fluctuation. In the old days people had to watch television on a television set. If you could get a decent statistical analysis of a certain number of television sets, you had a good idea of how many people are watching.

But now you can watch it on a television set, you can watch it on a laptop, you can watch it on your iPad and your cell phone. These audiences can be counted and put together in aggregate but it's a much more complicated affair.

There's talk that monitoring social networking comments about television shows could be really useful to advertisers. That data could become important as well - and that's something that a Nielsen box can't do.

Just like Ford and Chevy manufacture automobiles, the TV industry manufactures human attention. They manufacture it by putting something on the screen that's going to pull people in, get them to watch and stop them from doing other things. That's their product.

If you're going to sell human attention, you have to have a way of measuring how much of it you've got. Thought its difficult to measure how hard people are paying attention, you can at least measure how many people have tuned in. That's what the Nielsen ratings did.

As long as TV is supported by commercials, they're going to need a rational way of assessing how valuable human attention is as a commodity.

Nielsen took his father's company and brought it way ahead of his time. He brought technology and science and modernity to the emerging medium of television. Now, he has passed just at the end of that era.

Television is emerging into not just something one watches on a set that you can put a black box on. Now people are watching in ways that could have never been imagined when the Nielson company started.

Robert Thompson is the founder and director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University. He was speaking to Kate Dailey.