Intrigue in the Big League

A uni student's intrigue in marketing and media

Measuring the Lies

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As a student studying media with a major in marketing, I think it’s fair to say I can understand the importance and benefits of understanding an audience. Media producers want to know how their show is doing, the reason it has certain ratings, and how they can improve or maintain those ratings. Marketers want to use this data to their advantage. They can plug certain TV shows in shows that have high ratings, they can run advertisements in slots that are most likely to be witnessed by their target audience, plus much more. Measuring an audience can be done in many different ways, for many different reasons.

Measuring TV and radio audiences is a common occurrence. But the real question is “how reliable are the results?”

First lets talk about methodology. For TV measurement, the “black box” is given to certain households to measure TV watching. Demographic information is collected about the people in that household (occupation, age, income, gender etc). Those people are then also expected to input certain data into the black box to assist in the measurements; how many people are in the room, whether they left the room at all during the program, etc.

For radio measurement, originally certain people were given paper diaries to fill in. Certain information was required, such as time of listening, the channel, how long the listening occurred, what they were doing at the time (where they were) etc. Again demographic information was also collected about the people in the study.

Both of these methodologies involve input from the people being measured. This means the data collected is subject to the truthfulness and commitment of the people being measured. For example, if one person in the household with the black box is watching TV by themselves, and leave the room for five minutes to make coffee, they might forget to input this movement into the black box. Or if a person given a radio diary completely forgets about it until the last week of the study, and writes down their radio listening for the last month even though they have forgotten most of it, this data is likely to be untrue.

The point is, people are unreliable, and information they give about themselves is not exactly reliable. Therefore, audience measurement is a difficult process and results can be skewed by the data given by the audience.

As an example, I created my own very short survey. From the results of this survey, I could say that the majority of students in Wollongong would prefer to watch ‘The Bachelor’ on TV rather than the other show on offer on the other main channels. I could also say the majority of them prefer chocolate as a snack. However, any of the respondents could have lied about their answers. This shows how audience measurement results can be unreliable.


To avoid this downfall of radio audience measurement, American radio audience measurement firm, Arbitron, introduced a new,
more technological system for measuring radio audiences. The Portable People Meter (PPM) (“a pager-sized deviced that automatically captures the audio signals to which the carrier of the device is exposed, and translates that information into… ratings data” (Napoli 2009, p. 2))  replaced the old paper diaries.

However this efficient new device caused a lot of controversy. There were so many complaints about the device that it led to lawsuits. I find this very interesting. The audience will not have to make any effort at all for this study (except carry the device around) and therefore it makes the process easier for them. However, concerns of privacy are always important when it comes to measurement of audience activity.

What I also find intriguing is the fact that these results are likely to be more accurate than previous studies’. As Napoli states in his article:

“a new audience measurement system can produce significantly different portraits of the media audience from the system that preceded it” (2009, p. 3).

I expect more systems like the PPM will be created by audience measurement companies for many media types. The more accurate the results, the easier it is for media producers and marketers to use this information to their advantage.



Napoli, PM 2009, Audience Measurement, The Diversity Principle, and the First Amendment Right to Construct the Audience, Donald McGrannon Communication Research Center, viewed 15 August 2014, <,%20diversity,%20and%201a.pdf>.

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