An Interview With a Nielsen Family

The company monitors TV viewing and provides program ratings

Family of four on floor watching television, ground view
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The longevity of every television show depends on the Nielsen ratings, which are based on the viewing habits of American families. This includes watching DVR recordings and Internet streaming.

How does Nielsen gather the ratings? The company hires families from all demographic groups across the country to become official Nielsen families. Each family represents a specific number of households in a market (New York, Los Angeles, etc.) and helps determine the "share" of viewing each program generates.

Have you ever wondered who these Nielsen families are? Here's a question-and-answer interview with Barb Crews, a member of a former Nielsen family:

How were you approached to become a Nielsen family?

I think it was a knock on the door. I don't remember if we received a phone call beforehand, but I don't think so. They asked several qualifying questions. We were asked to participate three or four years before and were all set up to do it. When they came to do a pre-install walk-through, they discovered they couldn't do it because we had a DVR recorder and Nielsen wasn't set up for that. When we were asked the second time, I told them that and Nielsen now had a way to monitor that equipment.

What did the set-up process consist of and how did the tracking process work?

The set-up was absolutely crazy. First of all, I have to tell you that even though we are only two people, we have a large house and many TVs. Each TV had to be monitored, even one that was only used for VCRs and DVDs in a guest room.

We had six or seven people here for an entire day, from around 8 a.m. to 7 at night, setting up our system, and they never even stopped for lunch. The set-up guys are also the technicians that monitor your equipment while you are a Nielsen family. So, for example, there is one guy that had our state and his counterpart in other nearby states came and helped him set up. We were told it was one of the larger installations they had done.

Each TV had a computer system connected to it and tons of wires. Each cable box, VCR or DVD recorder had to be connected and monitored. So there were wires everywhere. It took several hours per TV set to get this all working.

After the set-up, each TV had a small monitoring box with a remote control. Each person in the household had a number, with an extra number for guests. Each time we would watch TV, we would use the remote control to sign in to who was watching TV. The monitoring box light would turn on for that particular person or persons. If you didn't use the remote to register when the TV was turned on, the lights would start blinking and flashing until someone registered. The way Nielsen set it up, we would also have to "refresh" who was watching it every 45 minutes. So 45 minutes into a show, the lights would start flashing until we hit the button again.

Changing channels, etc., did not affect it. It registered all that automatically. Basically, we just had to make sure we were signed in with our buttons in the monitoring box. From what I understand, if I walked away from the TV and left it on for a few hours if the lights were flashing, the computer took it to mean that no one was watching and did not count that particular show. We got used to doing it pretty quick, and it wasn't a problem at all.

Once you were up and running, did you resume your normal viewing schedule or did you rethink your habits?

In the beginning, we were certainly a bit more conscious about it but didn't rethink or change our viewing habits.

Was every single show you watched tracked?

Everything was tracked unless we didn't push our buttons, and then Nielsen assumed no one was watching or (we were) out of the room. They took so much time and had so much equipment invested in our home that we felt we had to be sure to hold up our end of the bargain and make sure that our tracking was on at all times. We could have ignored the flashing lights, but that is the only way something would not have been monitored.

If more than one show was on that you wanted to watch, how did you make the choice?

We used the cable DVR recorder, which Nielsen also monitored, so they could tell when we watched those shows, or even when we watched DVDs.

Did you track the Nielsen ratings?

If you mean look at them when they were announced, sometimes, but not often. Occasionally I would get a kick out of it when we were viewers of most of the top 10 shows, but that rarely happened.

Did you ever watch a show because it was on the verge of cancellation?

Definitely not.

Did you ever watch a show based on a friend's recommendation?

I think water-cooler talk helped influence us to finally watch some of the reality shows. (We) didn't watch them the first few seasons.

Were you paid to be a Nielsen family?

Yes, but minimally. We received $50 every six months for a total of $200. We were told that we would receive a $100 thank-you gift at the end of the 24 months but have not received that yet. I think I will have to give them a call.

How long were you a Nielsen family?

Two years.

How did it feel to have this kind of power?

Anyone who knows me knows I love to give my opinion, so there was no question that I would do this when asked. I am not sure how much it helped my particular favorites, but I did feel like we had a vote. From what I understand there are not that many families nationwide that do the monitoring/tracking we did, so that was exciting that we got chosen.

I was extremely impressed with how seriously it was all taken. We were called several times throughout the 24 months to make sure that all current personal data was the same—for example, a personal survey on cars we owned, computers, stuff like that. If we added any new equipment (e.g., a new TV) they would install it for us and gave us a small stipend for allowing them to monitor it.
The equipment was connected to a phone line and downloaded every night in the middle of the night, so if something wasn't right or wasn't recording right, they would know it immediately and I would get a phone call. The representative/technician would come out and figure out what was wrong. As I said, they took it very seriously and were also very conscious about not intruding on us more than necessary. We had a wonderful representative who was with us the entire 24 months.