At Last, Television Ratings Go to College
For decades, Nielsen Media Research has affixed the same value to every college student watching television while away at school: zero. As a result, industry executives have complained for years that shows appealing to a younger audience have been underrated.
But, starting today, college students count.
Shows like “America’s Next Top Model” and “Family Guy” are expected to see their ratings surge this week as Nielsen Media Research, a unit of the Nielsen Company, includes the viewing of students living away from home in its count for the first time.
In the TV world, a boost in Nielsen ratings often means a boost in advertiser dollars, so the adjusted ratings are good news for networks with high college viewership, like ESPN, Fox and CW.
Adult Swim, a block of adult programming on the Cartoon Network that expects its 18- to 24-year-old audience to jump by 35 percent with the new ratings, is so excited about the change that it ran an ad telling viewers about it in mid-October.
“It’s going to validate what advertisers have always assumed, which is that college students are watching our programming,” said Jeff Lucas, a senior vice president at Comedy Central. Mr. Lucas said that the network’s own research shows that “South Park,” “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart,” and “The Colbert Report” have a large college audience.
It’s too early to know how much more advertisers will pay for shows with larger audiences because of the college ratings. Network executives, of course, said they expect to be paid for the higher ratings. If advertisers decide to spend more on shows that demonstrate high college viewership, TV networks may decide to dedicate more of their schedule programming to college tastes.
The college ratings are the first of two major changes in the way viewing habits are rated. In May, Nielsen will start releasing figures on the number of people who actually watch commercials, separating them from viewers who walk away or switch channels when the ads come on. The potential impact of ad ratings on network revenue has not been calculated.
Nielsen’s move into colleges is its first step in an ambitious plan to track TV viewing wherever and whenever it takes place. Long focused only on viewing of home television sets, Nielsen is building portable meters to track when people see TV in bars, restaurants, gyms, stores and other places outside the home. And, within two to three years, Nielsen plans to merge data from its online unit with its TV unit to calculate total viewing on all media.
“The holy grail here is how to measure consumers as they go from TV to iPod to cellphone and back,” said Alan Wurtzel, president of research for NBC Universal.
But the first step — measuring students’ viewing of television — comes with its own pitfalls. College students still watch a significant amount of television, spending three and a half hours a day tuned in on average, about an hour less than all people on average, according to Nielsen.
But college students are not watching only TV. They are also among the most likely consumers to be browsing the Internet, watching streaming video, text messaging on their cellphones and playing video games — sometimes all at once.
“College students have the television on in the background at the same time they undoubtedly have their computers on,” said Matt Britton, chief of brand development for Mr. Youth, a marketing firm based in New York. “They’re online — searching Facebook, doing research, shopping.”
Their media habits make them targets of marketers, but just how attentive college students are while they are watching TV may give advertisers pause about how much they can trust their viewing.
“The people meter just measures if the set is on and what they’re watching. But are they doing their homework, are they talking to friends; what else are they doing while the ad is showing?” said Brad Adgate, senior vice president of research at Horizon Media, an ad-buying agency.
Still, Mr. Adgate said, advertisers may increase their payments to networks with large college audiences because of the perceived lifetime value of the college market. “If you can get them using your product at age 20, they could be using it for the next 60 years,” he said.
Until now, the 18- to 24-year-olds counted by Nielsen were mainly those who did not attend college, attended part-time or still lived at home. During holiday and summer breaks, of course, many college students are home and were counted by Nielsen at those times on their parents’ set-top boxes. (There are 10,000 households with Nielsen boxes tracking their viewing, and from those households, Nielsen extrapolates national viewing estimates.)
Over the last decade, several TV networks with shows aimed at young people grew increasingly frustrated that college students were not counted. About five years ago, Turner Broadcasting, which owns Cartoon Network and TBS, approached Nielsen about the issue.
Over the next year, Nielsen held discussions with its clients who pay for the ratings — the networks and the advertising agencies. As with most tests of new offerings, Nielsen wanted a group of clients to pay the costs of evaluating the college market. By 2003, Turner, WB, CBS, MTV Networks, Fox and ESPN agreed to pay, and Nielsen started pilot tests.
To add college students to the ratings, Nielsen contacted the roughly 450 families in its sample who had children in college. About 30 percent of those families agreed to let Nielsen put a meter in the college student’s dorm room or off-campus apartment. Some families did not agree simply because their child did not have a TV set at school.
The change will affect the perception of viewing behavior, particularly for viewers 18 to 24. College students, for example, watch more television during the day, when young people not in college are more likely to be at work.
The prime-time shows the college and noncollege population picks to watch are also not always the same. While “Grey’s Anatomy” and “The Simpsons” were popular in November on and off campus among 18- to 24-year-olds, shows like “Ugly Betty” and “America’s Next Top Model” were far more popular among college students than among other people that age.
In fact, the No. 1 one show for college males in November was Comedy Central’s cartoon show, “Drawn Together.” According to a Nielsen analysis, “Drawn Together” would have had an average audience of about 435,000 18-to 24-year-olds in November. But, since college students were not counted, the Nielsen rating in that age group totaled only 272,000 people that month.
Some TV networks are planning to spend more money marketing their shows on college campuses this spring since they will now see results in the ratings. Mr. Britton of Mr. Youth said two broadcast networks had contacted his firm about increased marketing on college campuses.
MTV already operates a network, called mtvU, that is seen exclusively on college campuses. MTV has found advertisers like Ford interested in specifically focusing on college students on the 750 campuses where mtvU is seen in places like dormitories, fitness centers and dining halls. Now that Nielsen is tracking college viewing, more college-focused networks or programming could be developed and sold to advertisers.Amy Adams, a freshman at Muskingum College in Ohio, said she and her roommate watch movies together on ABC Family and TNT on weekends. Other people in her dorm watch far more TV than she does, Ms. Adams said.
“As I walk down the halls, I always hear the TV on in someone’s bedroom,” she said. “Even in the mornings, too.”
Aviva Halperin, a senior at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, said watching TV is a social event for her and her housemates. They watch “24” every week, and they like to watch it when broadcast, using commercial breaks as a time to chat.
“I know this sound really silly, but ‘24’ feels real because it’s close to our own fears, and it feels more real when I watch it in real time,” Ms. Halperin said. “When I watch it on TiVo, it’s not as gripping.”
The lack of TiVo and other digital video recorders is another advantage of student viewers. Young people are more likely to channel surf and fast-forward to skip commercials, Nielsen’s research shows. But perhaps because of their cost, DVRs are owned by only about 3 to 4 percent of college students, according to Student Monitor, a college student research firm based in Ridgewood, N.J. (About 13 percent of American households have DVRs.)
On the downside for broadcasters, college students, like many people their age, also spend a fair share of their day playing video games — nearly two hours a day, not including online games, according to Nielsen.
Still, college students last week said they thought it was about time they were counted by Nielsen.
“It’s kind of silly that we weren’t,” said Beth Lovisa, a senior at the University of Pennsylvania. “It’s so not true that we don’t watch any.”