- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 26, 2008

The intimate media habits of the fickle public won’t be a secret anymore. Nielsen announced yesterday that it will use paid human “shadows” to monitor plugged-in Americans during every waking moment, with information updated as often as every 10 seconds.

The television-ratings company calls the $3.5 million project both “landmark” and “groundbreaking,” and has enlisted the help of academics and marketing mavens alike to mine the information. No bit of data is considered trivial.

“This is going to change the way we look at media. Our observers will arrive at [a] participant’s house when they get up, then follow them everywhere until they go to sleep, making a record of it all on a touch-screen electronic device,” said Michael Bloxham, director of Ball State University’s Center for Media Design, which will coordinate the study.

It will track the “media consumption” of 450 persons in five major cities — whether they are online, tapping at Blackberrys, watching television, listening to the radio, reading the newspaper, using a cell phone or being subject to Muzak in an elevator. It’s all designed to reveal intensely personal patterns in a competitive marketplace. Participants will be monitored during two separate 24-hour periods; the research begins next month.

“The idea of this is a little creepy but definitely ambitious. The only other way Nielsen could get closer to the audience is maybe through a subcutaneous implant monitored by satellites,” said Robert Thompson, director of Syracuse University’s Center for Television and Popular Culture, which is not involved in the project.

“Previously, we could monitor what TV shows people tuned in. But we couldn’t tell if they were asleep in front of the screen, or doing their French homework. Now we’ll have a better idea,” Mr. Thompson said.

Nielsen wants to know it all. Observers are being assigned to test subjects with whom they share cultural similarities, to make for a harmonious match, Mr. Bloxham said.

These companions will note all “life activities,” and whether their charge heard music from a CD player, car radio or restaurant loudspeaker. Choice of TV shows, talk-radio programs and Web sites will be recorded, along with the source of any video images. The researchers are prepared to “invent” ways to categorize this mix, if necessary.

“Most people are utterly omnivorous now. They happily interact with all kinds of media, and in 10,000 hours of research, we have not found that anyone is particularly overstimulated in some negative way,” Mr. Bloxham noted.

But they are infatuated with cyberspace. Consumers are spending twice as much time using the Internet as watching television, according to a study of almost 1,000 adults released last Tuesday by the International Data Corp., a Massachusetts-based research company. On average, the respondents were online 33 hours a week. They watched television for 16 hours and read newspapers or magazines for four hours.

“The migration of video usage beyond traditional television is an increasingly important issue,” said Paul Donato, chief researcher for Nielsen, which provides marketing insight to advertisers and owns Billboard, the Hollywood Reporter and Ad Week.

“In a world where people increasingly watch programming online, on mobile devices and outside the home, this study will help us better understand how people are changing the way they consume media,” he said.

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