Nielsen raters operate in stealth

NEW YORK – Like any average American couple, Samantha and Bob were sitting at home on a recent Tuesday night, watching television. But unlike the millions of other Americans doing the same thing at that moment, they were being paid to be average: The programs they chose represented what nearly 22,000 other Americans were doing with thier dials.

Samantha and Bob are a Nielsen family, a select group of viewers chosen by Nielsen Media Research to form its People Meter national survey.

And Samantha and Bob are not their real names. To secure the integrity of its sample, Nielsen recruits its households randomly and aggressively conceals their identities. It goes to great lengths to prevent anything from influencing the viewing patterns of its families and, thus, exposing them to outside pressures.

So the families live among us, in secret, like modern day spies.

“If their identities were compromised,” said Karen Guimesi, vice president of marketing and communications at Nielsen, “they would be taken out.”

Guimesi would not reveal how many of these families are dropped for being outed, but Samantha and Bob are aware of the consequences.

The couple selected their pseudonyms so that Nielsen would not be able to identify them.

There are only 5,000 such families nationwide, and they represent more than 108 million viewing homes across the United States. The families dictate ratings, influence commercial prices and, essentially, decide what the rest of the country watches.

“Nielsen zealously guards their privacy,” explained Jon Currie, a ratings expert with Currie Communications in Los Angeles. “They’ve been compared to the IRS and the CIA.

“If you try to find another family,” he warned a reporter with a chuckle, “they may try and come after you.”

Last August, Samantha arrived home to find a flyer under her front door. She thought it was another marketing ad but soon realized that she and her fiance were being recruited.

“At first I was a bit wary. I couldn’t believe it,” she recalled recently. “But then I thought it was cool. It seemed prestigious, and I’ve always wondered who these people were.”

Bob agreed. “And they pay you, too,” he said, almost in disbelief. Nielsen pays the couple $500 a year.

Nielsen does not accept volunteers and targets people who represent a particular demographic. It says that it has trouble finding younger people with busy lives for its survey. Nielsen thus offers monetary incentives to lure them.

Samantha and Bob agreed to a two-year contract. The Nielsen technicians arrived shortly thereafter and began the painstaking eight-hour process of installing the necessary equipment into their home. With the Nielsen Box fitted securely atop their two television sets, and a pair of separate remotes handed to them, Bob and Samantha became raters, with the simple directive to continue to watch television.

The idea is that “there is a person out there and he is a replicate of you,” added Currie. “Is this the best system? Probably not, but it’s the best system we have.”

The simple math adds up to Samantha and Bob representing the viewing habits of nearly 22,000 families. The couple is especially significant since it falls within the all-important urban 18-to 34-year-old range; a bracket coveted by most advertisers.

Yet, while each family represents only a sliver of the population at large, Nielsen takes each individual family quite seriously.

“It’s a very big responsibility and a very big honor,” Guimesi said.

While the couple termed their new responsibility “a commitment,” they maintained that it hasn’t added too many additional burdens to their lives.

“You get used to it,” Bob said, of having to log in each time and indicate with the special remote control what was been watched and by whom at a given moment. “It’s become second nature already.”

“The biggest problem is when we can’t find the remote,” Samantha added, with a laugh.

When the couple has guests over they must log them in as additional viewers. So while their family and friends know about their double lives, they are very careful as to when and how they reveal their true identities.

The pair insists that their selection of shows has not changed, but they do admit certain viewing annoyances. When changing between channels they have 90 seconds before the Nielsen machine forces them to decide which channel to watch. This slows down their flipping, and as a result they now watch many more commercials.

“We used to be big channel surfers,” Samantha said. “This limits our surfing ability.”

They also have to ensure that the Nielsen machine is properly functioning, especially when the television has been on for a long period.

“I’m always aware of the box,” she added.

Nevertheless, they have no regrets. Samantha especially is meticulous about her watching regime. She regularly follows the ratings to see how her favorite shows are scoring.

“I feel like I am making a difference,” she said. “When I open the paper and see that this show got a 5 share, or a 6 share, I feel like, ‘That was me, I did that.'”

The couple watched the Superbowl together, helping CBS earn a whopping 41.4 rating, reaching nearly 90 million viewers. However, Bob is the real sports fan at home, while Samantha prefers reality shows and sitcoms. Shows they routinely watch together include “Sex and the City,” “The Bachelor,” “American Idol” and “Real World” on MTV, which are all top-rated. Their favorite is NBC’s “The Apprentice.”

“We helped make it the No. 1 show,” Samantha said proudly.