The obsessive focus on ratings, in all aspects of television news—production, casting, media reporting, criticism and analysis, and in the corridors of power where decisions regarding coverage are made—still relies on the viewing habits of the 40,000 fabled “Nielsen households.” These are homes paid in the neighborhood of a few hundred dollars per year to submit to being watched by the watchers of Nielsen Holdings plc, an $8 billion S&P 500 company that provides, using patented proprietary voodoo systems of its own, the ironclad numbers that determine how much broadcasters can charge for their real product: advertising.
This explains MSNBC’s cognitive dissonance. Its real product isn’t news, it’s airtime for commercials, for T-Mobile and White Claw and arthritis medications that may cause “tears in the stomach or intestines.” Providing reliable information and maintaining high journalistic standards are ancillary concerns.
Kind of a banal observation, right? TV exists to sell commercials, as it always has. When I was a kid you used to have to get up from the sofa to turn the (suddenly much louder) sound down on the commercials. Big deal! But the technology has changed a lot since those days. Today, the business of selling and airing commercials has merged with an unimaginably intrusive level of surveillance, with the result that commercial imperatives are elevated far above everything else; not only news quality, but sanity or sense.
The “Nielsen household” system seems quaint. But the stakes are no joke, as a lawsuit filed against the company last year by the owners of The Weather Channel made clear. This small broadcaster has been obliged to pay Nielsen $475,000 per month for ratings information about its own audience; “effectively a ransom,” according to the complaint, noting that “advertisers only pay based upon Nielsen’s proof of performance. If a network cannot provide proof of performance in the form of Nielsen ratings data, the network cannot earn and receive any revenue for its advertisements.”
At a time when the very air is thick with surveillance, when every instant we spend online, or exercising, or driving our cars, or telling the time, is logged somewhere, it’s strange to think that broadcasters are still so beholden. Some of them seem to agree. CBS made headlines in 2019 for refusing to renew its $100-million annual contract with Nielsen—for the eleven days it took them to strike a more palatable deal.
It’s easier to understand this state of affairs when you consider that Nielsen isn’t really tracking what people are watching, it’s tracking the ads they are watching. This “seismic shift” occurred in 2007, according to a contemporaneous report in Advertising Age, and it was prompted by the rise of DVR technology, which permitted viewers to skip through commercials; new strategies sprang up to make sure that ad dollars were not going to waste. “The one thing that benefited the entire ad business,” ABC marketing and sales president Mike Shaw said to Advertising Age, “was having every single video supplier look at the format and how they program commercials and where the promotions air with the goal to deliver the highest possible audience to commercials themselves. That was a big benefit to the ad business, and that became our sole focus.”
Just as Star Wars became a vehicle for selling toys, the news exists to sell commercials. Fourteen years later this perspective has taken hold completely, as Nielsen’s most recent 10-K (which might have been written by David Foster Wallace) makes plain.
Our Media data is used by our media clients to understand their audiences, establish the value of their advertising inventory and maximize the value of their content, and by our marketer and advertiser agency clients to plan and optimize their spending. By connecting clients to audiences, we fuel the media industry with the most accurate understanding of what people listen to and watch. We believe that only Nielsen provides a fair playing field for the business of media, under our unique approach AUDIENCE IS EVERYTHING™.
MSNBC is one of Nielsen’s “media clients,” paying millions per year to “establish the value of their advertising inventory and maximize the value of their content,” and that explains a lot about its many shortcomings as a source of relevant, useful information about what is going on in the world.
Which brings us to the MSNBC press releases referenced in the headline of this piece. These documents define a wild literary genre that has long baffled me but which makes some degree of sense, as I recently realized, from the Nielsen perspective. Let’s read one!
MSNBC #1 IN TOTAL VIEWERS DURING BIDEN ADDRESS, TOPS CNN AND FOX NEWS
April 29, 2021
NEW YORK (April 29, 2021) – MSNBC was the #1 network across all of cable news (ahead of #2 CNN and #3 FOX News) and #2 across all broadcast and cable networks (ahead of #4 CBS, #5 CNN and #6 FOX) during President Joe Biden’s first address to a joint session of Congress on April 28, according to Nielsen.
During the speech (9:06pm – 10:11 pm), MSNBC drew a record 4.1M total viewers, easily topping CNN (3.3M) and FOX News (3M). Biden’s address marked MSNBC’s largest audience for a presidential address to Congress or State of the Union since 2/5/2019 when MSNBC averaged 3.8M total viewers during former President Trump’s State of the Union address.
MSNBC was also #1 for the entirety of primetime (8pm-11pm), averaging 3.3M total viewers (vs. CNN’s 2.4M and FOX News’ 3.1M) and sales prime (7pm-2am), averaging 2.2M total viewers (vs. CNN’s 1.5M and FOX News’ 2.1M).
MSNBC’s special coverage was anchored by Brian Williams and Rachel Maddow, alongside Joy Reid and Nicolle Wallace.
We’ve been conditioned to accept this utterly bizarre language without stopping to think for a moment who is supposed to be reading it, or why anyone would be impressed by it or even remotely interested in it. Do you care which news network, or program, is “#1”? (Technically the most-watched news program in the US is ABC’s World News Tonight, with about 8.2 million viewers, but whatever.) Advertisers care, and they are the ones who count, in every sense of the word.
This highly typical press release conveys the image that MSNBC apparently wishes to project in public, yet the public interest goes conspicuously unmentioned. There is not a syllable about the quality of their broadcast, their connection to their audience, or to the gravity of their responsibilities in a free society; they can barely bring themselves to mention their own anchors. Because all that really matters to MSNBC is the size of the audience, “according to Nielsen.”Maria Bustillos is the founding editor of Popula, an alternative news and culture magazine. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The New Yorker, Harper’s, and The Guardian.