Meet the newest addition to the Nielsen ratings family: you.
In an effort to expand its coverage of the coveted 18-to-34 television demographic, Nielsen Media Research announced that, beginning in 2007, it will start to include college students who do not live at home in its survey.
While the organization has always strived to represent an accurate and diverse cross-section of Americans, this move marks the first time that the research company will focus on out-of-home viewing.
"Our clients asked us to do this," said Laura James, a representative from Nielsen Media. "We're in a constant dialogue about what they need, and this is one of the things they need."
The move comes on the heels of January's announcement that the WB and UPN will combine into one network, CW, beginning next September. For years, the two rival "netlets" have struggled to carve out their own youth-catering niches in the shadow of the larger networks. Now, both parties hope they'll be stronger together than they ever were apart.
The move also illustrates a continuing trend among television executives to court younger viewers and keep better tabs on what they're watching.
"It raises the question of how you might expect the viewing habits of college students to differ from the folks at home," said Professor Robert Y. Shapiro, a member of Columbia's Political Science department who studies American politics and public opinion. "I'm not sure they're that much different."
Indeed, several students approached for an informal poll listed some of the highest-rated shows-Grey's Anatomy, Lost, American Idol, and the seemingly indefatigable CSI franchise-among their favorites.
There are, however, differences. According to Facebook's Pulse, a feature which reports the top 10 picks for various entertainment categories as culled from user interest profiles, the unchallenged champion at both Columbia and universities nationally is Fox's animated comedy Family Guy.
Christine Chase, a graduate student in the MPA-ESP program, described raucous viewing parties that would erupt in the SIPA lounge over the summer. "Every Sunday night, a few guys would come into the lounge and say, 'We're watching Family Guy!' and turn on the TV. Some people would try to continue working, but really, most of us just watched."
Despite this enthusiasm, Family Guy ranked 58 in last week's Nielsen rankings.
Other Facebook favorites, including Arrested Development and The O.C., are also on the low end of the Nielsen totem pole. Meanwhile, ratings powerhouse Desperate Housewives, which usually fishes in the top five most-watched programs, is not even a blip on Pulse's radar.
The addition of students to Nielsen's audience analysis could help to shrink the gap between what Columbia students say they're watching and what Nielsen Media Research says the nation is watching. FOX's quirky comedy Arrested Development, for example, has struggled for ratings despite critical accolades, and is now fighting for survival. Yet the show proved quite popular on Pulse and in polling.
But it is still uncertain whether networks with more youth-oriented programming will benefit from Nielsen's new development. "We don't have a crystal ball," James said.
According to James, only college students whose families are picked to be survey families will be included.
In addition, she said that while personal televisions will count (with roommates counting as long-term visitors), televisions in common areas-and shows viewed via downloading-will not.
Furthermore, while Nielsen reports that students watch an average of 24.3 hours of television weekly, a majority of the students approached for polling said that they don't watch television at school, if at all.
Mark E. Rosenthal, GS '07, said that he finds TV too much of a distraction.
"TV is like crystal meth. Some people can do a little every now and then, but I'm an addict. I had to quit cold turkey," he joked.
Still, according to executives, for shows with younger demographics every rating point counts.
"In a business like ours, every tenth of a rating point is worth tens of thousands of dollars," Garth Ancier, chairman of the WB network, told the New York Times.
That means that, after college students join the Nielsen family, Family Guy may not be going anywhere until at least 2017.