The Rise of the People Meter

Nielsen Introduces Its Peoplemeter (August 31, 1987) - History As ...

The last episode of the last season of this newsletter (and yes, I’m going with seasons as a publishing rhythm) came out in late February this year. Which really feels like not just a different time, but a different world. After 4 months under a never-breaking wave of unimaginable change, I feel like new rhythms of daily life are starting to emerge. They are fragile and precarious, but they’ll do for now. I hope you are finding your own new rhythms.


Over the last four months I’ve done a few podcast and zoom webinars for different people, including a talk about formats for Digital Works, masterclasses on attention and formats for Columbia University and Channel 4/National Film and TV School, and a good chat with my fellow Brightonian Richard Gillis for his Unofficial Partner Podcast about attention, Arthur Nielsen, and fandoms in sport.

I picked up a lot of new subscribers from that podcast, so welcome sports fans! Thanks for subscribing. This newsletter is very irregular, but very similar to the kinds of chat we had in Richard’s podcast. You’re joining 331 other subscribers to this list. I hope you stick around and enjoy it, and I love getting feedback and questions, so do let me know what you think.


In February I was gathering research material to try and understand how audiences reacted to the growing surveillance of their lives as media measurement tools developed in the 20th century. One of the areas I’ve been researching is the introduction of the ‘people meter’, a new way of measuring audience attention that emerged in the late 1980s.

As multichannel TV and VCRs took off, advertisers and broadcasters realised that their traditional models of audience measurement wasn’t capturing new audience behaviours. At the time, there were two complementary models for audience measurement - set top boxes and diaries. Set top boxes measured activity from the TV itself, sending data back down the phone line whenever it was switched on, or a channel changed. Diaries captured demographic behaviour, asking viewers to record their personal viewing every day.

Both methods had problems. Set top boxes didn’t require users to do anything different in the way they watched TV, so the data captured was complete and delivered instantly over the phone lines. But it only measured the TV, not the people actually watching it. Diaries gave an insight into personal behaviour, but they required users to physically fill in a diary recording their viewing, and it took weeks for the ratings companies to gather and analyse the data.

The combination of the two was imperfect, but at least they provided both detailed numbers and demographics, from which you could develop a model of what the audience might actually be doing. At least, you could when TV viewing behaviour was relatively simple. Cable, Satellite and VCRs changed all that.


I’ve been reading two books by Ien Ang, a Professor of Cultural Studies at UWS in Australia, that capture this moment in time really well. They were written in the 1990s, and so have fantastic access to contemporary magazine and journal articles about the rise of the people meters. She includes this great quote from an 1985 article by David Poltrack, vice-president of research for CBS, talking about how audience measurement was getting harder:

“It used to be easy. You watched M*A*S*H on Monday night, and you’d put that in the diary. Now, if you have thirty channels on cable you watch one channel, switch to a movie, watch a little MTV, then another program, and the next morning with all that switching all over the place you can’t remember what you watched.”

The people meter was introduced to solve this problem by AGB in 1987. The people meter was a development of the set top box device, but with the addition of numbered buttons representing each person in the household, plus a couple of extra ones assigned for guests. When someone started to watch TV, they pressed their button, and when they stopped or left the room, they pressed it again.

This was pitched by AGB and Nielsen as a perfect combination of both diaries and set top boxes, but there was a lot of resistance. One of the biggest problems for broadcasters was that the ratings it produced were lower than the previous methods. Early tests of the people meters showed ratings that were constantly 5-10% lower than the old diary and set top box system. When Nielsen ran the new and old systems side by side in August 1987, the people meter showed 1.3m fewer people watching TV.

Broadcasters were reluctant to accept the results of the new system, and critics argued that it was too similar to existing diary systems, which relied on people remembering to participate. NBC’s Vice President of research William Rubens dubbed the people meter ‘an electronic diary’ requiring people to ‘push buttons instead of pencils’, saying:

“People meters go against human nature. You can’t expect people to work on data entry during their leisure activity of watching TV. Either they take a leisurely approach to data entry, or TV viewing becomes work - and they may ease the burden by watching less”

This touches on an area of research that I’m particularly interested in - the tension between advertisers need to turn our lives into data, and the limits of our willingness to do so. In the last newsletter I mentioned the late 19th century worker’s slogan “Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, eight hours for what we will!”. I’m really interested in how, over the course of 20th century, the ‘eight hours for what we will’ went from being invisible leisure time to valuable commercial data.

People meters eventually became the standard measure of TV audience in the US and most of Europe, although Nielsen continued using paper diaries until 2018. But the problem of how to measure audiences without relying on them do anything remained. The ultimate goal was a system of ‘passive measurement’ - an automated way of gathering data about our attention that didn’t require us to break the spell and turn that attention into work.

In Ang’s book Desperately Seeking The Audience, she quotes an article from TV Guide in 1984 discussing the ways in which Nielsen and the ratings industry was trying to solve the problem:

“One suggestion is to implant tiny electronic ‘bugs’ in the navels of all family members in a people-metered household. That way, the meter will automatically ‘know’ ‘who’s watching, with no action require of the viewer. Another solution is to give every family member a special bracelet or wristwatch that would transmit a signal identifying the wearer to the meter. Or how about an ultrasonic device (like those used or burglar alarms) in all the rooms with TV users, so that family members would be recognised by the meter the instant they switched on the set. Another modest proposal is to build into the TV set a photoelectric eye that would watch you. And finally - the device audience-measurement theorists only all ‘the whoopee sofa’: a divan wired to detect tiny variations in the temperatures of household members’ bottoms and thus identify them for the meter.”

It’s interesting that article was written in 1984, of all years. George Orwell did, after all, predict that TV would watch us many years earlier. But what I find fascinating is that all these methods suggested by Nielsen and the other ratings companies now read like prototypes for the connected home or internet of things devices we we’re being sold in the 21st century. The ‘special bracelet or wristwatch’ is clearly the Apple Watch. Although the Ring camera uses video rather than ultrasonic technology, the mention of burglar alarms makes the link too close to ignore. And earlier this year, Stanford University released research about a smart toilet’ prototype that recognised you by an ‘analprint scan’. We haven’t seen bugs inserted into our navels yet, but I just happened to watch The Matrix last night with my family, and a bug like this plays a significant (and quite gross) role early in the film.

Nielsen did test facial recognition technology in 1989 to replace the button-pushing in their people meter, but it just wasn’t good enough to work at the time. This is why I’m enjoying researching this period of audience measurement - the desire to track people every waking minute was there, but it needed the internet, and in particular the smart phone, to make it possible.

What we now call surveillance capitalism didn’t start with the rise of Google and Facebook - it was already there as an idea in the 20th century, but just nowhere near as widespread and sophisticated. Nielsen measured a couple of thousand households to represent the US public. In 2020, Facebook has over 235m US users, each one of them giving the kind of minute by minute data about their attention that was impossible in the 1980s.

Two kinds of innovation were necessary to make surveillance capitalism possible. One was technology, and the rise of smart phones and the web solved this. The second was more unexpected - a social revolution that made giving data about yourself feel like fun instead of work.

In 1980, Nielsen had to send people actual dollar bills in the post to get them to fill in their diaries. In 2020, we do it ourselves every day for free, and the money gets sent to Facebook instead. We are all people meters now.

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