A publication of the Centre for Advancing Journalism, University of Melbourne


How I get to choose what you watch on television: the ratings explained

“Who is present?” is the haunting message that greets me every time I turn on my television. That’s because two months ago our household became one of the 5000 or so in Australia that make up the Nielsen Television Audience Measurement panel. In short, it’s the anonymous group of TV watchers who determine the TV ratings.

Words and cartoon by Wes Mountain

It all started with a phone call. I was running late for a meeting at work when I answered a mobile call from a blocked number. It turned out to be a short survey of my television watching habits, at the end of which I was invited to join the privileged few who decide the fate of whatever the networks dish up.

Nielsen surveys about 45,000 people like me each year to ensure their survey is the best representation of the Australian television audience.


I wouldn’t have thought that our household would be of any great interest to the ratings people: there’s just the two of us, after all, with a single television and (this actually surprised me) three computers. As it turns out, downloading TV programs actually counts (we do it legally, I can assure you).

My guess is we’re indicative of a new kind of “Gen Y” audience that the ratings — and advertising — companies are still trying to get a handle on.

To tell you the truth, I’ve never been a huge fan of TV ratings. Some of my favourite US shows have died untimely deaths due to poor ratings — Arrested Development, Futurama and Veronica Mars, to name just a few. Still, others have barely hung on year after year thanks only to ravenous (but tiny) cult followings.

Closer to home, the story has not been much better. Back in 2003, I was an audience member for Shaun Micallef’s ill-fated Micallef Tonight on Channel Nine. Due to some poor planning by the studio, we found ourselves sitting completely out of view of the stage. An apologetic stage manager promised that we could come back in two weeks’ time for another broadcast. But by the time that came around, the show had been cancelled.

Ratings can be fickle, and I have found that in our household we often disagree on what programs deserve to live (eg: Micallef Tonight) and which of them deserve to die (I’m thinking, The Voice).

Actually, the concept of “ratings” began when ACNielsen (founded by electrical engineer Arthur C Nielsen in 1923) started taking targeted surveys of radio audiences and providing the results to radio stations and advertisers so that they could have a clearer understanding of their audience and which programs were likely to drive the most sales for advertisers.

Ratings can be fickle, and I have found that in our household we often disagree on what programs deserve to live (eg: Micallef Tonight) and which of them deserve to die (I’m thinking, The Voice).

Ratings were determined by a simple diary that sample audience members would complete weekly to indicate which programs they were tuning in for and which members of the household were listening.

By 1948, commercial television was being broadcast across the US and within two years Nielsen started applying its radio ratings methodology to the new medium.

Locally, Nielsen ratings are collected on behalf of OzTAM (Australian Television Audience Measurement), which is the official source of TV ratings. In turn, OzTAM is owned by the major commercial television networks (Seven, Nine and Ten).

But the diary method of the early days of television ratings is no more: on our coffee table, in addition to the set-top box, Play Station 3 and TV remotes, now sits a remote for Nielsen’s so-called “peoplemeter”. We simply call it “the Nielsen box”.

The peoplemeter was created by Nielsen Media Research in 1986 after a 1983 study (conducted by ACNielsen itself) showed that the self-reporting diary method was inaccurate: audience members consistently reported higher ratings under the diary method than when surveyed randomly about their viewing habits.

That makes sense to me. I imagine there would be a lot of last-minute guessing about just what we watched over the course of the last week if we were bound to a weekly diary.

Instead, the peoplemeter prompts us automatically whenever we turn on the television, with the “Who is present?” prompt scrolling across the screen until we press our designated buttons.

To be honest, at times I have returned after wandering off to make a coffee to find “Who is present?” still scrolling across the peoplemeter screen, desperately waiting for me to enter our details while the TV plays in the background.

When Nielsen installs the box, it uses the data it already has from prior phone conversations to build a profile of you and others in the home, so each time I press the “A” button on the remote my demographic information is logged against the television program and the box greets me with a faux-friendly “Welcome Wes”.

If guests come over, their demographic information — age and gender — must be entered also. We have held a few Q&A and Game of Thrones parties since joining the panel and this can be a lengthy process with a room full of people (and a mini ratings spike!).

We have been tempted to leave the TV on beloved programs like Mad As Hell and Media Watch (we’re nerds, okay?) to bolster ratings when we go out, but so far we have resisted the temptation to muddy the data.

But how does it know what we’re watching?

The peoplemeter can note the television program you’re watching through two methods — either via the VGA output that is common to most modern TVs or a small microphone that mounts on the television’s speaker (this is the method we use). Nielsen analyses the audio (or visual data) to match it with its database of TV programs, as well as time and date information of programs being broadcast.

Nielsen can apparently tell if you’re watching a DVD, downloaded movies or actual TV programs, playing a video game or even watching iView. While iView ratings (and those for other proprietary players, such as Plus7 and SBS On Demand) are noted, all other information is recorded only as meta-data; that is, you’re not watching broadcast television.

We have been tempted to leave the TV on beloved programs like Mad As Hell and Media Watch (we’re nerds, okay?) to bolster ratings when we go out, but so far we have resisted the temptation to muddy the data.

So, Nielsen will know that you are watching something other than live TV (maybe those episodes of Mad Men you’ve been downloading sneakily), but not what it is or where it came from (so don’t expect the cops at the door!). Nielsen also has separate PC and Mac apps that can analyse your online viewing and this data is also used to analyse viewing trends.

From 2am to 6am each day, the peoplemeter sends the data from the previous day to Nielsen. This takes approximately two minutes and is done either of two ways — via an outbound phone call on your fixed line or through a SIM card mounted into the peoplemeter should you not have a fixed line (which is the case in our household).

There are 3135 homes on the panel in the five metropolitan TV markets and 2135 in the six regional markets. There are also a further 1395 panel members on a nationwide subscription TV market sample.

By way of comparison, Newspoll — the oft-quoted fortnightly political opinion poll — generally has a sample size of around 1100.

OzTAM provides overnight ratings to the commercial networks daily, and provides a “consolidated” report weekly, which takes into account recorded and on-demand video from services like iView and Plus7 that can’t be provided with the raw overnight data.

Ratings are given as an audience “share”, which is a percentage of the total number of viewers watching at any given time. This means that while there are 3135 people in the total sample, if only 1000 people have their television sets on and 100 of them are watching the ABC news bulletin, the ABC has a ratings share of 10 per cent, not 3.2 per cent.

Since the box was installed in our house, I would imagine the ABC (particularly iView) is getting a disproportionate ratings share. That and “non-TV” time spent watching Game of Thrones and Mad Men.

For an idea of what the data show, OzTAM offers the weekly consolidated ratings free to the public on their website.

But what’s in it for me and the thousands of other householders who agree to this invasion of their tele-visual privacy?

Well, being of a certain disposition, I get a warm glow knowing that I’m part of the statistical sample that decides what you get to watch on TV. Nielsen’s FAQ for panel members suggests a similar higher purpose: “The improvement in the quality of life (through better programming and more informed choices regarding products and services you buy) brought about by the Nielsen Television Audience Measurement TV Ratings Panel should benefit all Australians.”

But there is actually more.

Nielsen does provide a points-based incentive scheme. You get 500 points for the installation of the meter, and 10 points for each day it remains in the household.

In our household of one television, that means we are approximately 250 days away from hitting the 3000-point mark and qualifying for a mini-Maglite (battery included!) or polyester Slazenger Sports Bag, which leads me to conclude that they’re relying essentially on those of us who get off on choosing what television everyone else watches.

About The Citizen

THE CITIZEN is a publication of the Centre for Advancing Journalism. It has several aims. Foremost, it is a teaching tool that showcases the work of the students in the University of Melbourne’s Master of Journalism and Master of International Journalism programs, giving them real-world experience in working for publication and to deadline. Find out more →

  • Editor: Jo Chandler
  • Reporter: Qiyun (Gwen) Liu
  • Audio & Video editor: Louisa Lim
  • Data editor: Craig Butt
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  • Business editor: Lucy Smy
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