Led market research firm for decades

Arthur C. Nielsen Jr., whose family company has been the final word on whether television shows are hot or not for more than a half-century, died in in Winnetka, Ill., on Monday. He was 92 and had suffered from Parkinson’s disease.

It was the company founded by his father and then run by Nielsen that created the measurement system under which the entire television industry is based and, from the late 1950s on, the name synonymous with U.S. television viewing habits. Children and parents alike wondered who in their neighborhoods was being contacted and asked about what they were watching or, later, whether Nielsen had attached electronic meters to their TV sets.

The company’s influence in the business of measuring television ratings is unmatched. And even if television networks grumble that the virtual monopoly is slow in responding to some of their concerns, none can run their businesses without Nielsen. The numbers have taken on a greater significance, and are watched more carefully for accuracy, now that there are so many networks slicing viewership into several smaller segments.

A.C. Nielsen Jr. “really was the father of what Nielsen is today,” said David Poltrack, chief researcher at CBS. “His father started the company, and when he turned it over to Art Jr. it was just the beginning of the media measurement business.”

Nielsen grew up watching his father run an engineering research business that measured performance in factories. When the Great Depression hit, the business went broke, said J. Christopher Nielsen, Arthur Nielsen Jr.’s son.

The elder Nielsen soon started a successful retail index business that measured sales in grocery and drug stores and then decided to go into measuring the popularity of various radio shows.

When he got out of the service after WWII, Nielsen Jr. joined his father’s company. It was Nielsen Jr.’s experience in the Army with a machine used to turn out artillery calculations that prompted his father to purchase one of IBM’s first computers.

At a time when other broadcast executives were gauging the size of a radio audience by the number of letters received — “They’d weigh the darn mailbags,” Nielsen told Forbes — the Nielsen company was doing it electronically.

As the company grew and expanded to television, it also maintained a coupon clearinghouse, the retail index operation, a business that handled subscription services for more than 130 magazines and a service providing information to the oil and gas industry.

J. Christopher Nielsen said the company generated about $4 million in revenues when his father joined and saw sales surpass $680 million in 1983, when he stepped down to become chairman emeritus after more than 25 years as president.

Nielsen Jr. engineered the company’s 1984 sale to Dun & Bradstreet for $1.3 billion in stock. The company later was acquired by Dutch publishing company VNU. It went public in January as Nielsen Holdings N.V.

“He really was a real model for what a corporate leader should be,” Poltrack said. “I say this despite the fact that he ran a monopoly and it drove me crazy.”

Nielsen’s wife, Patricia McKnew Nielsen, died in 2005. Besides J. Christopher Nielsen, Arthur Nielsen Jr. is survived by another son, Arthur C. Nielsen III, daughter Elizabeth Cocciarelli, and seven grandchildren.

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