The Nielsen Experience: Losing Control Over When Viewers Watch Their TV Shows is a Brave New World for Stations

I recently had the opportunity to do some informal research on the state of the television industry. There is a lot of talk about the long-term viability of newspapers, but I think broadcast television faces greater challenges.

When you are asked to be a Nielsen family, your first reaction is a feeling of power. You get a chance to shape the viewing habits of America! You get a chance to save those favorite shows that Neanderthals out there don't watch and thus consign to oblivion. This presumes that you still have favorite shows.

When we received a diary for each of four televisions and distributed them among the six people here on the farm, we realized what a pain it is to write down everything you watch. Television is so pervasive in our lives that we hardly pay any attention to what is on when. Or what channel.

But at the end of the week during the May sweeps, I looked over the four diaries before mailing them off to the Nielsen company. I had little to do with filling them out, I don't watch much. But in looking over the entries of the youth demographic so sought by advertisers (that would be my sons and their wives), it told me more than any trade journal about the state of broadcast television.

As far as my own viewing, I used to routinely turn on the three major broadcast networks and if I didn't find anything I liked, I looked for a movie on one of the cable stations. But the networks have trained me to go elsewhere with all their schlock reality shows. Okay, I watch 60 Minutes. But I'm supposed to watch The Amazing Race before I can watch The Good Wife? No, I'm going to go find something else to watch. Or, I'm going to pull out my laptop.

I can't remember the last time I watched the network evening news. In my home office I keep a cable news station on all day and I surf newspaper websites as well. What could possibly be on the news with Brian Williams, Scott Pelley, or Diane Sawyer that I would need to watch to be fully informed? As far as anyone else in my house watching the national news? Surely you jest.

If there is good news for local broadcast stations is that we do watch local news, beginning about 5 a.m. And then at least one of the local news broadcasts in the evening. But at 11 p.m.? Sorry. It's Jon Stewart and The Daily Show.

The irony of the reality shows driving me away from the networks is that a lot of the younger members of the family watch the hardcore really crappy reality shows that didn't make it to the networks. Duck Dynasty? Hoarders? Cooking shows? It makes me want to gag, but fully half the entries on the viewing diary was some variation of this idiotic, mindless drivel.

But looking at the ratings diary, the biggest chunk of prime-time television viewing among the young people's demographic was watching two entire seasons of Downton Abbey via Netflix.

I've noticed that young people prefer all their entertainment at once. No, they don't tune in PBS every week to catch a Downton Abbey episode. They get full seasons and do a marathon. The same with 24 and other hit dramas. I foresee a Breaking Bad marathon in my future.

How advertisers spend money and get results in the current environment is beyond my comprehension. I think local broadcast stations should follow the best advice newspapers have been getting lately. Local. Local. Local. Give folks something they can't get anywhere else and cover things important in their daily lives. Our local stations seem to be doing that, and their websites are very good.

Recorded television shows, Netflix, and Hulu have one thing in common. Shows can be watched at the convenience of the viewer, not at the mercy of television programmers. The days of counter-programing and "winning the night" appear to be over.

It's a brave new world. I'm just sorry it will have Duck Dynasty and Hoarders in it.


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