Audience Researchers

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"Research" in a media organization can mean checking sources for news programs, and it can mean conducting market research for advertisers. "Audience research," however, means only one thing: research that seeks to answer questions about the size and nature of the audience of television programs, radio stations, newspapers, magazines, and Internet websites. Because of the size of the television business and the important role of audience measurement, most audience researchers work at broadcast and cable networks and at local television stations. Therefore, this entry will focus on television audience research. (Audience research at the various media companies differs somewhat, but there are many similarities.)

The Famous "Nielsen Ratings"

Most people outside of the media business have some idea about audience research at the television networks because of the so-called Nielsen ratings, which are widely reported as measures of television program popularity. However, these ratings are frequently misunderstood and misinterpreted. For example, it is often said that Nielsen data shows that Americans watch seven hours of television each day. They do not; that is, Nielsen does not say that, and Americans watch much less. Nielsen finds that, in the average home, television sets are turned on for seven hours, but that does not mean that any one person in the average household watches that many hours of television programs.

Nielsen data are quite complex and not always easy to interpret. There are a variety of measures: household data (which are most widely reported, even though they are quite unimportant); "PUTs" (persons using television); "ratings" and "shares" (a share is a rating relative to the overall viewing level at the time); and "demo ratings" (demographic ratings, such as "18-49"). All of these provide information that is very important to most advertisers.

The complexity of the measures and the skills needed to interpret them accurately are not the main reasons why an audience researcher has a very important job. Audience research data are the "currency" of the commercial television business. While the Nielsen ratings are important measures of program popularity and help programmers decide which shows to keep on the air and which to cancel, their main function is to provide information for advertisers. For most networks and stations, advertising revenue is the main source of income, and that revenue depends on the size and quality of the audience. The more people watch a program, and the more those people watching the program are likely customers of the advertiser, the higher the revenue the broadcaster can expect to receive from commercials shown during that program. And since there is no other objective measure of the value of the programs to the advertiser, the Nielsen ratings are the currency of the television business. In a way, the audience numbers—and not the programs—are the products of television. (This is also true of radio and, to a large extent, the Internet. Magazines and newspapers also have circulation numbers that indicate how many "eyeballs" may have been reached by an advertisement.)

In short, audience researchers analyze the numbers that have a huge influence on television programming and determine the placement of billions of advertising dollars each year. A change of one point in the rating of a program can make a difference of $20,000 in the price of one thirty-second commercial; a change of one-tenth of a rating point for a television season could mean $30 million more or less revenue for the networks.

Becoming an Audience Researcher

When television was in its infancy, most audience researchers learned on the job. Today, many colleges and universities offer courses and degrees related to the business of the media; some have programs specifically designed to prepare students for a career in this field. Not very many institutions, however, have courses on audience measurement, and there is no up-to-date textbook on this topic.

Essential skills for this job include research methods, statistics, and familiarity with computer programs. Just as important is an interest in and knowledge of television, advertising, and marketing. To supplement the college curriculum, students may want to try spending some time as interns at a television station and/or with media planners of an advertising agency. (The latter might provide an understanding of all media, not just television.) The more knowledge and the deeper the understanding of those areas, the greater the opportunities a person will have to advance beyond the level of an analyst (who conducts important, but more routine and repetitious analyses of data), to a level where he or she gets involved in all aspects of audience measurement. This might include preparing reports that decide the fate of a major television program, conducting an analysis that might help the sales department bring in an extra $50 million of advertising revenue, working with Nielsen on methodological issues, or analyzing Internet usage in relationship to television usage.

On the Job as Audience Researcher

What does the day of a media researcher at a network look like? The first ratings are released each morning. Many programming executives get up quite early and want to find out immediately how their programs performed on the previous night. These clients also want trend analyses and other special reports that are geared toward their specific needs.

The other group of clients are the marketing and sales people who need the audience numbers to use in selling advertising time and making presentations on the quality of the audience. They may want information about the same programs as the programmers, but from a very different perspective. For example, they are primarily interested in positive data and information that will be useful for specific advertisers.

Beyond these daily, "normal" aspects of these kinds of jobs, there is an ever-changing array of special circumstances that often involves changes in Nielsen procedures or computer programs. Of growing importance is the arrival of new technologies—from high-definition television (HDTV) to digital video recorders (such as TiVo), and Web TV—that are difficult or impossible to measure with current hardware and methods. Thus, the job of an audience researcher will evolve, but it will continue to challenge and offer great opportunities to those who continue to learn on the job.

See also:Television Broadcasting; Television Broadcasting, Careers in; Television Broadcasting, Programming and.


Gannett Center for Media Studies. (1988). "Measuring the Audience." Gannett Center Journal 2(3), special issue.

Stipp, Horst. (1997). "How to Read TV Ratings." American Demographics 19(3):28-29.

Horst Stipp