Everything we do, and everything we feel.

How Arthur C Nielsen and George Gallup defined the way we measure audiences

Sometimes, when you’re researching a subject, you can have an ‘Adam Curtis’ moment. It’s the point where you’re deeply entangled in multiple threads of stories and research, and then find something that suddenly seems to snap them into focus.

The problem is, once you’ve noticed the pattern or link that does this, it’s hard to not start seeing it everywhere. It can end up shaping all your research, and you find yourself less interested in threads that don’t fit this pattern. I love Adam Curtis’ films, but sometimes they seem just a bit too, well, neat. His central arguments feel almost too strong. Can the complex stories of politics, culture and society he weaves really be traced back to one or two key characters and events?

So with that caveat, I think I had an Adam Curtis moment last week in my research on the history of audience metrics. I wanted this week to write about two pioneers of audience measurement - Arthur C Nielsen and Archibald Crossley - who developed the first broadcast radio metrics in the 1920s. I’ve written about Nielsen and Crossley before - in fact, this newsletter is named after that essay.

Nielsen is, I think, one of the most influential and under-studied figures of the twentieth century. Starting with his work developing a Food and Drug Index so that American manufacturers could track sales through their increasingly remote and complex distribution chains, he turned the Nielsen company into a metrics and data empire. He once said to his son ‘If you can put a number on it, then you know something’, and his obsession with turning complex systems into numbers means he was the pioneer of Big Data.

Archibald Crossley, who coined the term ‘ratings’, came from a different background in public opinion polling, The battle to measure broadcast radio audiences was essentially about their two different methodologies - the sampled, opinion poll style of Crossley, and the data-driven style of Nielsen.

When Nielsen discovered the Audimeter at MIT, which measured radio audiences via time-stamped marks in a slowly revolving roll of paper tape, he started the process of turning audiences into numbers. Rather than relying on what we say we listen to when interviewed by a researcher, Nielsen had actual data about what we do, driven by each turn of the radio dial. Nielsen’s numbers ended up beating Crossley’s opinion polls.

I thought this battle between Crossley and Nielsen, between numbers and opinions, was the turning point for the story of audience measurement in the early 20th century, and that Nielsen had won. There is a direct line from Nielsen’s Audimeter tracking a hand turning a radio dial, to Facebook’s data centres tracking our every click or tap on our mobile screens. It was Nielsen who ended up dominating the measurement of the cultural empires of broadcasting in the second half of the 20th century, and laid the ground for our current era of Big Data.

But then last week I got a copy of Susan Ohmer’s 2006 book George Gallup in Hollywood. I knew that George Gallup was part of the group of audience measurement pioneers, along with Nielsen and Crossley, in the 1920s and 1930s, but I assumed that he ended up working mainly on political opinion polling, not in media and culture.

Ohmer’s book tells the story of how George Gallup used his political opinion polling techniques for executives at the emerging Hollywood film empires, including RKO Pictures and Walt Disney. Gallup in fact started as a journalist, holding professorships at Columbia and Northwestern, and moved to New York in 1932 to head the research department at the advertising agency Young and Rubicam. He developed a polling technique to help his mother-in-law win office in Iowa, and then set up the grandly titled American Institute of Public Opinion in 1935, the organisation that would eventually become Gallup.

When he was still teaching journalism, Gallup invented new techniques to measure newspaper readers’ attention - not just how audiences bought newspapers, but how they actually read them. One of his insights was that all newspaper audiences across demographics enjoyed, and spent a lot of time, reading the cartoons on the ‘funny pages’. In fact, on average people only read 15 percent of the newspaper, and it wasn’t the news, but the picture pages, sports, and the comics.

Gallup also worked on radio ratings, improving Crossley’s technique of asking listeners to recall what they listened to by having his interviewers knock on people’s doors and ask them what they were listening to right at that moment - a human version of Nielsen’s Audimeter.

He then famously predicted FDR’s win in the 1936 Presidential election, and the Gallup poll became a byword for American public opinion throughout the 20th century. But he was still a journalist at heart - a colleague once suggested his archive of polling results made him a historian, and he replied “No, I am really more a reporter. I report what American citizens think and feel.”

The fascinating aspect of Ohmer’s book is how Hollywood relied on Gallup’s polling technique for decision making. Gallup was asked to poll about the US public’s attitude to Hollywood stars, their reaction to new technologies like Technicolour, and their responses to preview edits of major films like The Wizard of Oz.

If Neislen’s metrics measured the public’s consumption of culture, Gallup’s polls measured their feelings about it.

So this is my Adam Curtis moment - in the stories of Arthur C Nielsen and George Gallup, we have two pioneers of audience measurement. One focused on measuring our behaviour, the other on our feelings and opinions. There are remarkable similarities in their lives - they both created companies that bore their names and became bywords for their industry - the Gallup poll and Nielsen ratings. They were both born at the turn of the 20th Century - Nielsen in 1897 and Gallup in 1901, and both died in the 1980s, just as computers were ushering in the Information Age that there work had laid so much of the groundwork for.

They each represent a different path for audience measurement in the last 100 years, one on behavioural data, and one on audience opinions. Between them, they invented techniques to measure everything we do, and everything we feel. I have a sense that telling the stories of their parallel lives will be a great lens to tell the history of audience metrics. The process of measuring what we do and what we feel were separate for much of the last 100 years, and this separation is perfectly represented in the lives of Gallup and Nielsen.

Arthur C Nielsen died in June 1980, and Gallup in July 1984. Just a couple of months earlier, in May 1984, Mark Zuckerberg was born, the person who would, by connecting the Facebook social graph to the like button, bring the two worlds of Nielsen and Gallup crashing together and turn Facebook into the ultimate store of data on everything we do, and everything we feel.