How to Join Nielsen TV Ratings

by Jeff Pennington ; Updated September 26, 2017

The Nielsen TV ratings have been the primary means of measuring advertising rates in television for the past 50 years. To take part, you must be invited to participate through a random sample. College students, because they represent a unique demographic that is important to the Nielsen Co., can join at any time, whether at the beginning, middle or end of a college semester. There are generally two ways of participating in the Nielsen TV Ratings. One is to complete the diary, and the other is to join the metered panel group.

If you live in a smaller television market, a paper diary is likely to be sent to your household. When you receive a letter in the mail from the Nielsen Co., it will contain an invitation to participate in completing a light blue book chronicling your television viewing habits. You will use this diary to record shows that each family member watches daily. According to the Nielsen website, over 1.6 million paper diaries are mailed to households across the nation.

The diary is generally filled out by hand, then mailed back to Nielsen’s production facility in Florida once it is completed. Paper diaries are used for smaller and midsize markets. They are examined annually during the sweeps periods of November, February and July.

If you live in a larger metropolitan area, specifically the top 21 markets, you are more likely to receive a "people meter" set-top box. The core of Nielsen’s measurement process is a method known as electronic metering. Two types of electronic metering are used. One is called the set meter and the other is called the people meter. Set meters record what channel is being watched on a television at any given time, while people meters, the more accurate of the two, uses a machine the size of a small book with a remote that has personal viewing buttons on it to represent each member of the household.

When a household member watches television, that information is recorded and sent back to Nielsen to be compiled in a statistical sample that factors into the overall ratings of television shows being shown across the country. A blinking light on the meter box indicates that the viewer must push the button they were given to signal that they are now watching television. This system has been in use since 1987.


  • It is impossible to predict who might be chosen from the general population to serve as a Nielsen household.


About the Author

Jeff Pennington has been a freelance commercial writer for the past five years, producing quality marketing content for web sites and local businesses. He earned a B.A. and M.A. in English literature from Columbia University and has been published in the Atlanta Business Chronicle.

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