demographic vistas

Thursday, April 17, 2003
5-7 p.m.


What's Happening to Prime Time?

This ongoing series of Forums on prime time television will feature some leading TV scholars and media professionals.

Their assignment: To help us understand the forces shaping contemporary prime time by looking in part to television's past. What is the state of television drama in this era of profound social, economic and technological transition? How have cable and satellite networks and the emergence of the Internet altered the TV medium and its story-telling functions? How are contemporary political realities shaping prime time television? What is the future of "reality programs"? Our speakers and our always lively audience will engage these and related questions with their usual passion and civility.


Susan D. Whiting is president and chief executive officer of Nielsen Media Research. Nielsen Media Research currently has approximately 65 cable and network clients and hundreds of local cable customers.

Respondent: Thomas Streeter is an associate professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Vermont. His Selling the Air: A Critique of the Policy of Commercial Broadcasting in the United States won the McGannon Award for Social and Ethical Relevance in Communication Policy Research.


Television is going to change more in the next ten years than it has in the last 30, according to Susan Whiting, president and CEO of Nielsen Media Research.

Forces driving this change include digital television, the explosion of cable channels and programming, and consumer devices such as VCRs, TiVo and high-definition television (HDTV), Whiting said.

"Causing the greatest alarm, and getting the most attention from the television industry, are the time-shifting [technologies] and personal video recorders, which are like VCRs on steroids," Whiting said. The alarm arises from the potential impact on advertising of consumers using devices that make the purchase of prime-time slots irrelevant or that skip commercials entirely, she said.

The Nielsen company rates the number of viewers watching specific television shows by recording and delivering a daily sample of the viewing choices of 5,100 households, about 13,000 people, across the US. The Nielsen ratings affect $56 billion in television advertising sales every year, Whiting said.

But as television viewing patterns change, so must television ratings methods, Whiting said.

"Everything we measure today is inside the household, but a lot of television viewing happens outside the house at work, at school, in dorms, bars, and restaurants," she explained.

One initiative by Nielsen to measure dorm viewing has been to include college-age viewers among the 5,100 sample households, she said. Another was to start NetRatings, a service to measure viewing habits by young people, who tend towards a "very converged world between television and the Internet," often using them simultaneously.

"The Holy Grail of television measurement would be completely passive," requiring none of the actions people in Nielsen households now do, such as keeping a diary, to confirm they're watching one show or another, Whiting said. The Grail would allow measuring peripatetic viewing habits.

Whiting also noted Nielsen was expanding its reach to measure viewing activity by "zappers," people who watch several shows almost at once, and by children starting at age 2.

"They have stickers and coloring books so they know when they're watching television they're supposed to punch in," Whiting said of the pre-pre-school set.

Thomas Streeter, associate professor of sociology at the University of Vermont and author of Selling the Air, a critique of commercial broadcasting, responded to Whiting's remarks in the discussion that followed.

Streeter proposed a rating system for television inspired by the search engine Google, which "judged value by looking at how Internet users judged value. It was measurement not of an audience but by an audience," in contrast to the Nielsen method.

--by Sarah Wright
-- photos by Lilly Kam