What Do TV Viewing Habits Say About Us?

Many people predicted that after Sept. 11, Americans would yearn for the wholesome television programming of decades past, but TV ratings show that desires for outrageous reality shows and not-so-clean humor continues unabated.

"All of the pundits who said this would happen were wrong," Susan Whiting, president of the Nielsen Media Research Company told Good Morning America. "Shows like The Osbournes became wildly popular, along with shows like Fear Factor."

The Osbournes, the hit reality show that chronicles the profanity-soaked conversations and antics of rock star Ozzy Osbourne and his family, and Fear Factor, a reality program featuring outrageous stunts, present "escapist programming," and there's no indication that its popularity is on the decline, Whiting said.

Network Struggles Continue

Nielsen has been tracking viewing habits for more than 50 years. Now, at the beginning of another television season, the majority of shows launched in the next few weeks will struggle to gain acceptance over the airwaves, and few will become bona fide hits.

With the advent of cable television, the ratings of shows on network television have been declining in the past 20 years. Though the top shows on each network used to draw monster ratings, that is no longer the case.

The top TV program of all time, the final episode of M*A*S*H on Feb. 28, 1983, generated a 60.2 rating, with three out of four TV households in America tuning in. By contrast, the finale of Seinfeld in May 1998, drew a 22 rating, or one out of five households.

"This shows the tremendous watering down of network ratings caused by cable TV," Whiting said. The monster ratings will probably never return to what they were in pre-cable days, she said.

‘Fractured’ TV Watching

The way people watch television has changed, too.

"People just don't watch TV together in the home anymore," Whiting said. "Audiences have become "fractured" within the home. Families are breaking off and watching shows individually, with the average home now having about three different sets."

While the power and influence of people over 50 has become a force economically, intellectually, and culturally in this country, most of what is on TV is geared toward people half the age of the Baby Boomers.

"Advertisers want this group, mostly because they are so hard to reach," Whiting said. The younger demographic spends less time in front of the television than older groups, so advertisers want to reach them, Whiting said.

Flipping Through 89 Channels

In 1985 the average American home received about 18 channels, but now we're flipping through 89 on average. With all of these new channels, Nielsen still has to figure out who is watching what, by getting families to become "Nielsen families," and charting their TV viewing habits with pencil and paper.

Nielsen breaks down their data into the number of sets in a house, and can determine things like when the children are upstairs watching Nickelodeon, while dad is in the basement watching ESPN. They can even track the habits of people who flip channels.

In the future, Nielsen technologies will be more sophisticated. They are going to begin coding programs, and incorporating some of the technologies that have been used to track Web audiences into their television tracking techniques.

But they will still need to measure who is watching — age, and sex — and not just how many "hits" a particular show gets. Advertisers want to know who is watching, and when and for how long, Whiting said.

There is also a new piece of technology, known as the "portable people meter," a beeper-like device that logs programming seen or heard anytime, anywhere by whomever is wearing it. Nielsen is going to begin coding television programs, and the device's sensitive microphones pick up those codes. It also includes a motion detector that verifies someone is wearing the device.