Another trip down memory lane…to 1932

In the previous post, I took a timely look at a 2004 prediction for how things might be in 2014 – now less than three weeks away.

This time, I truly do want to take a trip down Memory Lane, back to the 1930’s, which in the US is when the roots were being laid down to measure how people use media.

The book, Audience Ratings: Radio, Television, Cable by Hugh Malcolm Beville provides an in-depth and absorbing review of how the media measurement industry began.  The need back then (and now, to some degree) was to show the impact of radio commercials on housewives spending habits in the study named “Sales Begin When Programs Begin” as the author describes below:

This was really an activity diary kept by a sample of 3,042 housewives.  The diary recorded – by half-hour periods 8am-5pm, for an entire week – the listening of household members plus the housewife’s other activities (whether accompanied listening or not) such as preparing meals, doing laundry, housekeeping, shopping). The purpose was to demonstrate a significant level of daytime listening by housewives, and that listening often accompanied or preceded activities in which advertisers’ products were used (soaps, cleansers, food, etc.).  Audience data by half hours for men, women, and children were published.

Seemingly, the simplicity of measuring media behavior in the 1930’s is in stark contrast to today.  Traditional media such as Radio, Television, and Newspapers struggle to measure usage in an age in which users no longer fit into easy-to-understand categories.  Add the fact that the digital side is awash with metrics and it’s not surprising that measuring any form of media behavior is becoming more complicated and expensive Then there are entities such as The Media Impact Project, that I highlighted earlier which want to take things in a very different direction for media measurement by focusing on impact rather than reach.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not wanting to go back to seemingly simpler times, least of all the hardship of the 1930’s.   For media measurement, the next decade will be fascinating.  Hopefully, we will all better understand how people use media so that we can tell and explain better stories.  But amidst all of the big data and the struggle to tell and share story lines, it’s worth making sense of where we are now by stepping back to see where it began.


A vision for a very different news media


Imagine a news media where the impact of journalism was measured not by how many people who saw the news report or show, but instead by the impact and the outcome on the audience.

This is one of the goals being sought by The Media Impact Project, based out of the Norman Lear Center at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.  The Media Impact Project aspires to “be the global hub for the best research on measuring the impact of media.”

Such a change could be transformative for all of media.  Instead of today’s mainstream news organizations who get the most ears and eyes reaping the biggest share of advertising revenue, independent and non-profit news organizations who are doing investigative journalism to help create a more informed public might get more fairly rewarded.  These valued sources might also stand a better chance of surviving the current ‘cut-throat’ environment in which organizations live or die by the ratings.

Personally, I think this is one of the most exciting developments in all of media research right now, one that could change the industry’s understanding of its audience and change the content we consume each day.  Here’s why: the method you use to count the number of eyes and ears who see a news report, a documentary, a show, or a film determines what gets produced and what continues to be produced.  When you change the way you count, you can change where the advertising dollars go and you can change the comparative value of genres, demographic segments, stars, hosts, and entire industries.  As Jon Gertner succinctly explains, “change the way you measure [America’s] culture consumption and you change [America’s] culture business, maybe even the culture itself“.

The essence of this project points to the limitations of traditional media measurement – selecting a random sample, tracking their behavior, and then extrapolating that small sample across the entire population within the confines of standard demographic groups.  Media companies that can target their users precisely, such as Pandora which can target ads to specifc groups – such as Hispanic females, aged 25-44, in a US metro – might render the current ratings system obsolete much more quickly than many might realize, but until then, the industry is stuck with a less-than-ideal measurement system.

That’s not to say creating a new system of impact metrics will be easy.  The Media Impact Project will pull together the smartest minds using the power of “big data” generated by the many social media networks.  From this, they seek to create ‘open-source mechanisms and processes to measure the impact of media content – not just in terms of what they say and share about a story or a show, but what actions they take thereafter.  Many news organizations – big or small – likely have an untapped qualitative goldmine of data that is not being fully explored and one that is getting bigger by the day. There is no consensus, yet, on how best to do this, but already several big thinkers are already leading that conversation.

The challenge here will be immense.  Researchers are still only at the beginning of understanding what content is share-able and how different cultures share information differently.  While they will be closely monitoring what we say and share in our social networks, our eyes will be watching them to see how a very different measurement system can create a very different media.