August 20, 2007
Checking Out Their Alibis: Do Viewers Remember What They've Seen?

Sometimes, you have news you just really don't want to report. That's probably how Nielsen feels about its engagement panel. In short, Nielsen was interviewing folks who formerly participated as Nielsen households about their television viewing. When news started circulating about the Nielsen engagement panel earlier this month, the result was that a great number of the 918 people they had interviewed so far not only couldn't name advertising they had seen while serving as a Nielsen household but television programs as well.

According to a story from MediaPost's MediaDailyNews by Joe Mandese, only a third of those interviewed could recall a television commercial, and 21 percent of viewers could not "correctly recall" at least one TV show they had viewed. The reason it is titled "correctly" is that the interviews were then compared to their viewer data, as some of those who named a show they had watched had not--in fact--watched it, or at least not in their home on a television being monitored by Nielsen. They are going to be comparing those who claim they could remember a commercial with the commercials they actually watched from the Nielsen tracking data.

I have a lot of questions regarding the study, ones which I imagine could be answered with more digging. I wonder how long of a gap there is, on average, between the viewing and the call, as the length of time you are asking people to name a commercial or program they watched during a particular period of time makes a major difference.

It may very well be that Nielsen hurt themselves through flaws in the way the study was constructed to begin with. The whole purpose of the Nielsen box is to be invisible and for people to go about their lives as usual, just with Nielsen measuring what is on the TV screen. To then change and ask them, almost like a cop checking for an alibi, what it was they watched on their television sets on a particular set of evenings could be quite difficult if they were some time removed from the viewing experience by that time.

I think I could easily name what I watched for the programs I watch regularly and faithfully...But the particulars would be hard to come up with, especially when it comes to naming commercials, but even television shows, since I use the DVR to view almost everything I watch.

To me, though, knowing some of the framing of the study makes all the difference, but it's certain that the data further emphasizes something not terribly surprising, that one centralized form of data only means so much, and just knowing someone has certain content on their television screen doesn't really tell us much about their interaction with that content, what it means in their lives, how they are engaging with it, or whether they can recall details about it if someone questions them about it after the fact.

For more on Nielsen's "Anytime Anywhere Media Management," or A2/M2, look here and here.