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Watching What You Watch, Listen To

Frank Ahrens

Today, the two biggest and most important audience-counting companies--Arbitron and Nielsen--are launching a new project designed to track what you watch and listen to wherever you go.

Nielsen records TV viewing and Arbitron (based in Columbia in Howard County) records radio use. For years, the system they used required viewers and listeners to try to remember what they watched and listened to and write it down in a diary. Obviously, such a system is about as accurate as can be expected: people forget what they watch and listen to, they misidentify station names and they even lie, saying they watched the Discovery Channel when they actually watched a "Cops" marathon.

In recent years, Nielsen has moved to a set-top box that automatically records what shows were watched and Arbitron invented the Portable People Meter, which you can strap on your belt and it remembers every radio show you heard during the day. Thorough. A little creepy, but thorough.

Now, the two companies are working toward combining their devices in an effort called "Project Apollo."

This is potentially good news and bad news for advertisers.

Nielsen and Arbitron in many ways are the most powerful entities in entertainment. The audience numbers they provide to networks and radio stations tell them how much they can charge advertisers for commercials.

Project Apollo should provide a better idea of not only how many people are watching and listening to shows but who they are, which is demographic gold for advertisers trying to reach certain groups of people.

On the downside, simply because these new technologies are more accurate, they have shown that fewer people are watching some shows than thought, which means networks have to cut their ad rates, which they hate. Consequently, some networks have fought the new technologies with an attitude similar to that of a kid who doesn't want to hear something: by sticking their fingers in their ears and yelling "Neenerneenerneener!"

In the end, you can't fight better technology. As the Borg would say, "resistance is futile."

* On an only tangentially-related matter, here's me on NPR this morning talking to Steve Inskeep about the story I did in Wednesday's paper on the YouTube Effect in this year's Super Bowl: At least four of the ads you see in Sunday's game will have been made by amateurs.

By Frank Ahrens  |  February 1, 2007; 11:30 AM ET  | Category:  Frank Ahrens
Previous: Bad Times At the New York Times | Next: Super Bowl Ad Nauseum

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Please email us to report offensive comments.

I dearly wish that someone was actually keeping up with what I watch on TV--although it has never happenned.

Most of the shows I watch get moved to different time slots and finally dumped while other ignorant productions have "great" ratings.

I think the Nielson people only survey people with IQ's less than 50. If it's can always find it. If it's interesting and moves or gets cancelled.

Posted by: Deborah | February 2, 2007 1:18 PM

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Posted by: aljoes zktasd | February 15, 2007 2:39 PM

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