Nielsen Families -- Who Are They? An Interview with a Real Nielsen Family

Family of four on floor watching television, ground view
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How many times have you thought that if you were picked to be a Nielsen family, your favorite shows would never get canceled? I know I have thought that many times over the years as I've watched great shows get canceled in the blink of an eye.

The livelihood of every single television show relies on the Nielsen ratings. Yes, DVR recording and internet viewing are taken into consideration, but when it comes right down to it, the Nielsen ratings are the ultimate factor in whether a TV show stays on the air.

So, how does Nielsen determine the ratings? They hire families from all walks of life across the country to become an official 'Nielsen Family.' Each family represents a specific number of households in their market (New York, Los Angeles, etc.), which helps determine the 'share' each program generates.

Have you ever wondered who are these elusive Nielsen families? Are they really out there? The answer is an astounding yes and we were lucky enough to have the opportunity to interview one of them!

Imagine my delight when I learned that one of my colleagues here at had been a Nielsen family. Barb Crews, who runs our fantastic Collectibles site, was kind enough to answer all of my lingering questions about the Nielsen process...

Q: 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 before hand, but I don't think so).

They asked several qualifying questions. Funny thing is, 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 (several years later) I told them that and Nielsen now had a way to monitor that equipment."

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

"Wow 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 am to 7 at night setting up our system and they never even stopped for lunch! The Nielsen guys came from states all around us. The set-up guys are also the technicians that monitor your equipment while you are a Nielsen family. So, e.g. 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 (see photos). Each cable box, VCR or DVD recorder had to be connected and monitored. So there were wires everywhere. It took several hours per TV station to get this all working.

After the set-up, each TV had a small monitoring box with a remote control (see photo). 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 into 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. We had a monitoring box on each TV.

From what I understand -- if I walked away from the TV and left it on for a few hours (like in another room), 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."

Q: How many households did you represent?

"Not sure what you mean, it was my husband and I.

But they did have my pre-school grandson down as an occasional visitor. They were looking for our demographic and from what I understood, would not have used us if we had anyone under 18 living here."

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

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

Q: Did you find that you became much more aware of the viewing choices you made?

"Not really."

Q: Was every single show you watched tracked or was there a special button you had to push?

"Every thing was tracked (see above) unless we didn't push our buttons and then Nielsen assumed no one was watching or out of the room. It's funny, but 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."

Q: If more than one show was on at the same time 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."

Q: 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 ten shows, but that rarely happened!"

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

"Definitely not."

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

"Uh, yeah I think water cooler talk helped influence us to finally watch some of the reality shows like and , didn't watch them the first few seasons."

Q: Were you paid to be a Nielsen family?

"Yes, but minimal. 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. Think I will have to give them a call."

Q: How long were you a Nielsen family?

"Two years."

Q: 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. e.g. a personal survey on cars, we owned, computers, stuff like that. If we added any new equipment (e.g. new TV) they would install it for us and gave us a small stipend for allowing them to monitor it."

Barb also adds...

"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, etc. 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."