Nielsen gives it the old college try

Student measurement could spike ratings

Add to the latenight cram sessions and boozy “study breaks” another campus tradition: “Grey’s Anatomy.”

Despite the growing number of alternatives, campus life has never revolved more around the tube, an observation that will soon be supported by hard data as Nielsen Media Research begins measuring college audiences the first week in February.

It’s Nielsen’s first attempt to measure TV viewing outside the home, a move that will instantly expand the number of ratings points within the hard-to-reach 18-24 demographic and will likely boost ratings for shows that have relatively small ratings but big campus followings like “Veronica Mars,” “Adult Swim” and “The Colbert Report.”

“Statistically, the numbers are small, but they will add to the 18 to 34 audiences,” says CBS research chief David Poltrack.

Preliminary Nielsen data indicates students living on campus watch 25 to 30 hours of television a week — on par with their off-campus peers –and that college students account for 50% of all TV viewing outside the home, with hotels, workplaces, gyms, bars and restaurants divvying up the other half.

“This is the biggest chunk of out-of-home viewing not being measured,” says Turner research chief Jack Wakshlag.

Nielsen has long included college students in the sample, but for the nine months or so that they were away at college, their viewing was counted as zero.

Initially, Nielsen is following the college student children of 125 Nielsen families to campus and will install meters on TVs in dorm rooms or in the common areas of suites. The caveat is that the TV must be under the control of the Nielsen family member, and there will be limited ability to detect how many people are watching at any given time.

While this improves on the current methodology — ignoring campus viewing altogether — even a casual observer understands it hardly begins to describe campus TV culture, where viewing parties for “Greys,” “24,” “Lost” and “Battlestar Galactica” are as common as off-campus keg parties.

Social networking site Facebook has clubs for every major TV show. “One of the things TV has going for it is it’s free, and students don’t like paying for things,” says Paul Levinson, professor of media studies at Fordham U., which has active viewing clubs for “24” and “Lost.”

On Thursday nights in Gambier, Ohio, for example, the public lounge of Kenyon College’s Caples Hall fills up with 30 to 35 students. Pizza is delivered, and at 9 p.m. the channel switches from “The Office” to “Greys.”

None of this viewing will show up in the Nielsen sample, because televisions in common areas won’t be measured. “That’s problematic, because it isn’t representative of who is watching the show and how freakishly devoted their fan base is,” says Kathryn VanArendonk, 21, a senior English major at Kenyon.

VanArendonk believes that serialized dramas like “24” and “Lost” have increased group-viewing in recent years. “You get together, watch it and spend an hour talking about what just happened,” she says.

Students also lead the way in terms of downloading shows, passing around DVDs and time-shifting — which also isn’t counted in the ratings. “With ‘Heroes’ on at 9 p.m. on Monday, it isn’t the easiest time to be stuck in front of the TV, so I watch that on the Internet,” says Allison Sunderam, 20, a political science major at Santa Clara U.

The push to include college students began more than a decade ago when broadcast ratings began to decline and increasing numbers of young viewers were lost to cable, videogames and other pastimes.

“At the time, there was enough viewing by young people at home that it wasn’t considered a big issue. Business was good and there weren’t a lot of alternatives for viewers and advertisers,” says Tim Brooks, research director at Lifetime.

But then audiences began to fragment, and as networks increasingly found themselves narrowcasting, pressure built to measure students despite the logistical challenges.

In 1998, Wakshlag, then research head at the WB, proposed simply following the members of Nielsen families when they moved on to college, rather than trying to build a separate sample. As a network targeting 18-34, the WB had a big incentive to find these viewers, as the CW does now.

During a test last February, “Gilmore Girls” added four-tenths of a ratings point when college students were added. Such a boost could mean the difference between another season and cancellation.

In the same test, ratings for Cartoon Network’s “Adult Swim” increased 19% in the 18-34 demo when college viewing was included. MTV, Comedy Central and TBS’ “Sex and the City” also increased by double digits in the 18-34 demo.

“These people have been in the sample, but their viewing wasn’t being credited to anybody,” says Colleen Fahey Rush, exec VP of research at MTV Networks.

Sports and soaps are other categories also likely to increase. In the Nielsen trial, male students watched 29 hours of TV a week, on average, while women watched 24 hours, a stat that could help ESPN or ABC’s college football.

Initially, Nielsen will not be providing the college audience as a discrete group, but when the numbers are added, networks and ad agencies will get a good sense of what is popular on campus, which could be of great significance to marketers desperate to reach the demo.

Even if the new data doesn’t change the overall ratings much, shows that rate well on campus are going to draw attention from Madison Avenue, which covets the demo, but has been skeptical about its engagement with advertising.

“The college market is very attractive to a lot of advertisers and marketers from credit cards and movie studios to apparel and beer,” says Brad Adgate, senior VP of research at media planner Horizon Media. “It’s difficult to get them engaged, but many marketers will embrace them regardless of their engagement.”