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The Schmielsens

POSTED MARCH 21, 1998--Finally, America gets the choice it deserves! In a country where choice is everything and everything is on TV, doesn't it just make sense that there should be a choice in television ratings services? To us the answer is obvious, and that answer is......Nielsen/Schmielsen.

In launching The Schmielsens ("Counting Eyeballs, Two at a Time"), our goal is not to sink Nielsen, our industry-leading big brotheralthough one model of our business plan called for just that, and believe me, it would be much easier than you thinkbut rather, we hope to add some sanity to an expensive, anachronistic and ultimately very undemocratic way of dictating WHAT YOU WATCH!

The Schmielsen’s person-to-person approach is the culmination of a century's worth of refinements in the measurement of audiences large and small. Combining the near-august traditions of audience measurement and telemarketing, along with the two most important devices in the pre-millennial household, the teles (phone and vision), we simply phone people up and ask them what they’re watching. How novel, how perfectly accurate and ultimately, how potentially dangerous (especially when trying to find out if anyone is watching Stan Turner at 3 a.m.!)

Unlike the Nielsens, which employ an impersonal set-top box and diary system to measure viewing habits, The Schmielsens is on the leading edge of an industry-wide trend to combine technology and humanity, by actually talking on the phone, person-to-person, with our fellow citizen/consumers. We simply ask them what they are watching at any given minute. And if they’re surfing, we catch them at the top of the wave, not in fifteen minute increments like our beach-bound competitor (many industry observers openly refer to this as Nielsen’s "Fifteen Minutes of Shame.")

In addition to bucking this more personalized trend in audience measurement, Nielsen relies on a piddlingly small sample (about 5000 out of 100 million US households) to protect their near-monopoly. (We say near monopoly, because pre-launch interest in The Schmielsens has been rather high. One industry trade magazine suggested that we might be the boutique audience measurement service that some of the hotter, more attitudinally-driven advertising agencies are beginning to demand.)

Along with the general, lingering questions about Nielsen’s cold and impersonal approach, there has also been a lot of press about the voracious viewing habits of the 5,000 odd Nielsen households; the general consensus is that these people are glued to the tube and exercising their near-addictive power to sway popular culture. "Are They Cooking the Books to Tell You What’s Hot?", a recent headline asked. Our initial findings confirmed that yes, lamentably, this is true. The Schmielsens found that late-night viewership actually is somewhat lower than Nielsen has been reporting. During our first-ever sweeps survey, covering the last week in February, we found that many people in the non-Nielsen households were actually in bed between 10 and 10:30 p.m.   And when we called, they told us in no uncertain terms that we had interrupted their sleep, or, whatever else they might have been doing.  This is what we refer to in the industry as "the soundest of findings." But our worst fear, that the caller ID vogue might produce a flood of indignant calls, never came to pass. Only two callers chose to carry on the pestering that we had begun.

And what is The Schmielsen methodology? Not surprisingly, it's something straight out of the New Simplicity Movement; Call 52 people (One person from each letter of the alphabet in the Minneapolis and St. Paul phone directories) between 10 and 10:30 p.m. and record their responses to the question, "Are you watching TV, and if so, what?" We did; here’s what we found out, and how it compares to what they found out.

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KTCA-2 (Various Shows) 3.0/5 1.9/3
WCCO-4 (News) 14.0/23 15.4/28
KSTP-5 (News) 11.1/19 5.8/10
KMSP-9 (News) 2.9/5 1.9/3
KARE-11 (News) 17.7/30 13.5/24
KLGT-23 (Jerry Springer) 3.8/7 5.8/10
WFTC-29 (Star Trek) 3.0/5 1.9/3
OTHER 13.7/23 9.6/3
SLEEPING (Bed)  N/A 5.8
SLEEPING (Couch)  N/A 3.8

*Ratings Period--February 23 to February 27
A rating point is the % of total TV households watching
A share is the % of TV households watching that are tuned in to that show

The Schmielsen's first-ever sweeps survey confirmed the industry-wide belief that the person-to-person approach really does represent the future of television audience measurement. The most significant variation between our findings and theirs concerned the top-rated newscasts, along with the previously mentioned fact that Nielsen tended to inflate the actual number of households watching, also, Nielsen was unable to offer hard data on the number of people sleeping at that hour. We won’t say their numbers are flat-out wrong, but here’s one example that speaks volumes about the qualitative difference between The Schmielsen ahair.gif (11305 bytes)nd The Nielsen methods: a respondent told one of our senior researchers that he was watching the news (KARE 11), probably because he thought that is what we wanted to hear. But our researcher heard something that sounded like a wrestling match in the background, and probed deeper, asking the respondent, "Is this a bad time to call? It sounds like we’ve interrupted a fight." The respondent then revealed that he was actually watching The Jerry Springer Show, and not the KARE 11 newscast that finished first in the Nielsen ratings for that period! Night after night, call after call, a similar scenario was repeated and eventually, the truth came out. For us at The Schmielsens, there are no winners and losers, just the recognition of a job well done, an appreciation for the truth and our thanks to you, the viewer, for helping us to obtain it. And remember, when Schmielsen calls, the truth is on the line.

--Mike Tronnes, for The Schmielsens