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How are Households Selected to be a Part of the Nielsen Ratings System?

By Rebecca Partington
Updated May 23, 2024
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The Nielsen ratings system determines ratings by monitoring the television viewing habits of thousands of households in the United States and more in other countries. These households are selected on the basis of the degree to which they represent all television-viewing households. The Nielsen organization studied the overall population of television-viewing households and determined what characteristics make them different from non-viewing households. Then the organization selects households distributed among geographical locations in urban and rural areas so that the proportions in each area match census data as closely as possible.

The householders that have agreed to participate in the Nielsen ratings system have monitoring equipment installed on their televisions, VCRs, DVD players, satellite dishes, digital video recorders, and cable boxes. Another type of meter, which has a button for each household member and guest, is used to let the Nielsen ratings system know who is watching the television at a particular time. The meters are used to monitor when a television set is turned on and what channel it is tuned to, and this information is then automatically transmitted to the Nielsen organization.

The information is supplemented through the occasional use of diaries in which the household members write down what they watched and when. Diaries are also sent out to other viewers, who record their viewing habits for one week out of the year.

The ratings system is a method of determining how many households have their televisions tuned to a specific program at a specific time. It does not determine whether a television program is of good or bad quality; instead, the system provides data on who watches the program and for how long. These ratings are often used by television advertisers and the overall television production industry to monitor the popularity of various programs.

The Nielsen ratings system is important because it allows advertisers and content providers to know which shows are popular among various types of people. This information lets them tailor advertisement delivery to certain populations, saving money for the advertisers and increasing revenue for the content providers. If an advertiser pays for air time during a specific program and that program does not have a sufficiently high rating, the advertiser might decide to withdraw its advertisement. In order to attempt to prevent this loss of revenue, the television content provider might move the program to a time slot that might provide more viewers or take it off the air.

In another attempt to improve ratings, content providers air highly anticipated programs during the "sweeps" weeks in November, February, May, and July of every year. These times are important because this is when the Nielsen household members complete the week-long viewing diaries provided to them by the Nielsen organization. These diaries provide detailed information about how many and what types of people watch each television program, so this information is highly prized by both content providers and advertisers.

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Discussion Comments

By anon1004104 — On Nov 17, 2020

I would like to know how I can become part of the Nielsen Ratings? Can anyone help me?

By anon1001024 — On Feb 19, 2019

I want to know how I can become part of the Nielsen ratings?

By anon993467 — On Nov 17, 2015

I've been a Nielsen household for about five weeks. You can't ask to be selected. The whole point is that they select households randomly. I agree with those who have said the flashing lights on the people meter are extremely annoying; I don't understand why they come on every 42 minutes.

Anyway, I don't believe the previous poster who said they got $200 upfront and $45 each month. Nielsen doesn't pay that much to any participants. I got a snack basket as a welcome gift. You get $50 a couple of weeks after the initial install and then every few months you get another check and it goes up a few bucks each time. I also don't get this business about them opening up your TVs; my install guys just hooked up some cables to the back of the TV. I don't expect that my input alone will have a huge impact on what shows get to stick around a while, but if I can do my part (by not watching) to get trash like the Kardashians and the Real Housewives off of everyone's TV, I will consider my time as a Nielsen household well spent.

By anon993384 — On Nov 10, 2015

I am somewhat annoyed with them. I was called last week to participate in a radio survey. She asked ages and sex info and what I listened to the most. She said we would be receiving packets next week. So today a post card came saying basically that we aren't needed. So do they keep the information?

By anon989103 — On Feb 19, 2015

I was selected to be a Nielsen Home few months ago and I said yes!

They installed two boxes on my TV, one captures sound from the back of the TV and one for viewers to push a button once an hour when watching TV actively. The tech brought me $200 cash on the day of install and I am receiving $45 a month for next 24 months to simply watch TV and they give extended warranty on all my devices. A survey don't get better then this trust me, wait till you get selected. Love it so far.

By anon949629 — On May 05, 2014

Yes, the Nielsen ratings are accurate. Just because your favorite shows don't do well is not a reason to denounce the science of statistics. Not to mention there is nothing stopping any other company from starting up and competing against them. Some already do their own. But they are not popular because they are not as accurate.

Believe it or not, marketing companies have people who are far more knowledgeable than anyone on this blog, and they use actual data to make up their minds about whether to pay the pretty steep price to get Neilsen's detailed analysis of viewers' habits.

The reason why they pay so much is because they have found over the past several decades that when they advertise on programs that Nielsen says has lots of viewers, they see a much larger increase in sales than when they advertise on programs that Nielsen says has fewer viewers.

By anon949628 — On May 05, 2014

Some people ask how to get the calls to stop, but then admit they act childish when they do. Any real company like Nielsen will stop calling if you specifically ask them too. Don't be a child and just hang up or never answer. When they call say, "Please put me on your company's Do Not Call list" and they must, by law, do it. And like I said, any non-scam company will abide by this. Seriously, very often it pays to act like an adult.

By anon949157 — On May 03, 2014

I just received my first payment today for doing a diary of television programs watched in my house for a week. I was sent $30 in cash for keeping a diary of shows I already watch. I have been a member for a while now and have only received one call from the Nielsen company and that was to find out if I wanted to participate in this TV rating diary opportunity. Sorry to hear others have had a bad experience. But from what I have experienced personally, they seem to actually have kept up to their part of the bargain. I mean it's actually nice to get paid for the surveys I take. I have yet to find another company that actually pays as promised.

Of course, I am always open to other suggestions, but this is just my opinion from personal experiences. Others may not have been so lucky as noted above!

By anon946519 — On Apr 20, 2014

This is the most rude, invasive telemarketing company of all. I have deleted them from calling six times, but they continue to change numbers, and keep calling. I am on the do not call list, but that's a waste, also. Can anyone tell me how to stop them from calling? I don't answer their calls, but they never give up. I am disgusted with them. We have no more privacy in this country.

By anon941234 — On Mar 21, 2014

Very intrusive! My wife accepted the opportunity to let the Nielsen TV ratings people come into our home and hook up huge boxes to our TVs. They unhooked my son's turtle beach headphones and hooked their box into his Xbox, and had the nerve to tell my son not to unhook anything. They actually unhooked his headphones and put another hookup in its place. I can't wait to get somebody on the phone over that one.

By anon354066 — On Nov 05, 2013

I never had anyone install anything or was asked to install anything to my television. I was simply sent the survey's to check off which shows I watched and occasional reviews. Anytime I didn't return a survey I was sent a few dollars in cash to complete it and send it back, which I did -- why not?

I guess they've changed for newer participants, maybe too many weren't filling out the cumbersome survey's.. they could be quite lengthy. I went ahead and sent back a survey with a note asking to be removed as I didn't watch any series anymore. I stick mostly to classic movies and Sundance. Occasionally I catch reruns of shows like "Big Bang Theory" because I never remember when the show is on. TV isn't that important to me anymore.

By anon343658 — On Aug 01, 2013

I remember years ago our local NBC channel's programming suddenly got very popular according to the Nielsen ratings. It wasn't even close, even though CBS and ABC both had really good shows at the time. Every week, the local ratings would show a huge spike for NBC. Someone finally figured out that a lot of the Nielsen houses in the area had young children, and home video games like Atari and Intellivision had just been released. The local NBC affiliate was on Channel 3, the same channel used by the video game systems. The NBC shows weren't really that popular, but Atari was.

By anon324587 — On Mar 11, 2013

I am participating at this moment. I received $50 at the onset six months ago. It is annoying to watch television with equipment flashing every 45 minutes to see if you are "still watching"! We have been doing our best to login every time we watch. No additional monies have been sent for our participation as stated during initial conversation.

We are calling for equipment removal if they aren't going to hold up their end of the bargain. It is definitely not worth the money for the constant annoyance of flashing equipment and intrusion on your privacy and the voided warranty of your TV when they open the back to attach the equipment. Send them away when they come to your door!

By anon313046 — On Jan 10, 2013

They are very invasive. They install loads of equipment at every TV to monitor the sound from your devices. Often this involves opening the device and attaching wires that void the warranty. I know someone who had their equipment break because of this.

By anon302637 — On Nov 10, 2012

How does the people meter work? I know they hook it up and the meter uses an audio sensor to identify the channel being watched. I bet the audio sensor can pick up general conversation in the area of where you watch TV. Scary.

By anon296338 — On Oct 10, 2012

I am thoroughly disgusted and was actually scared when a couple of workers banged on my door in the evening. Since I was alone, I didn't answer, only to find that they were soliciting "special" persons to participate. That is an awful way to get participation by cold calling at a house in the evening! I would never participate!

By anon258659 — On Apr 02, 2012

I too would like to know how to be part of Nielsen Ratings? Anyone know?

By anon134113 — On Dec 13, 2010

Based on research I have done in my area, I don't think the Nielsen is doing an accurate job of monitoring what ALL people are watching. They need a new method. There is a lot of trash TV that is scoring ratings but yet we can't find anyone who watches it. Many of popular shows such as NCIS, CSI, etc yes.

However, often a group of us are discussing a great new show and oops there it went. I watch less and less network and more Pay TV and cable as time goes on.

By anon117166 — On Oct 09, 2010

How do families participate in Nielsen Ratings?

By anon94485 — On Jul 08, 2010

They contact you by post usually, and it is purely by chance. There is not an application process. I believe it is based on demographics.

By anon70709 — On Mar 15, 2010

well i think the nelsen rating is a rip off. general hospital steams my tv and days of our lives is very good at times. the forgotten is a very good show, and csi thurs is hot. it should go by cable tv for all viewers.

By jimburks — On Oct 25, 2008

I would like to know how I can become part of the Nielsen Ratings? Can anyone help me?

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