In the Loop

Big brother is watching you watch "Big Brother"

Posted at 11:33 AM on September 10, 2007 by Sanden Totten (4 Comments)

I've always wondered where TV ratings come from. How do they know what shows people are watching? I imagined a bunch of scientists were sitting in a room watching a TV that showed exactly what I was watching at any given moment. If I flipped to MTV, their TV would flip to MTV. If I switched to a Trading Spaces marathon, they would switch to a Trading Spaces marathon. They'd scribble furiously on clipboards with every change I made, taking notes on my habits. Sometimes I would leave on Bravo or The History Channel to make them think I was more refined than I really I am . . . then again, I'm sure they figured me out after they realized I would watch several episodes of Saved by the Bell in a row on a daily basis.

(Photo via
But that's ridiculous and a bit creepy. Who wants someone monitoring every bit of media you consume? Well, I guess advertisers do.

Enter the Portable People Meter. It's a pager sized tool that keeps track of your media diet. You simply strap it on, go about your daily business and it takes notes on what you watch. Eventually the results get sent back to the ratings guru Arbitron.

But the creepy thing about the Portable People Meter is that it has the potential to monitor not just your TV habits, but your radio and Internet habits as well. Even at a bar or in a cab the People Meter will pick up what's going on around you. Advertisers will have reports on every second of your media consumption.

I guess that's not so bad in theory. It could be good for advertisers to spend less but more effectively reach an interested audience . . . Mostly it troubles me that someone will know how much crap we really fill our lives with. I guess it's time we start leaving on PBS and Public Radio in cabs and barrooms, so the scientists think we've got some substance to us. Then, when we aren't carrying our People Meter we can sneak away to watch Zack Morris or a Real World marathon.

Comments (4)

It gets worse then that - if you have digital cable, they know what you watch - utterly and completely. And since they know where you live, and your age/sex/marriage status, they can tie those in as well.
Tivo got in a bit of a mess a few years back because they were recording show habits and didn't tell people about it for several years.

Posted by Jeremy Pavleck | September 10, 2007 3:14 PM

I once got a TV diary thing from Nielsen -- seemed a bit lo-tech, and even the promise of $10 didn't inspire me to manually keep track of what I was watching. So I guess that week's ratings were all the poorer for my laziness.

Posted by Anna | September 10, 2007 5:04 PM

This is a terrible use of technology when did we switch to developing technology so that people stop gaining a benifit. Now a days technology consists of ways humans can be more exploited let me give you some examples; cell phones with ads, credit cards that can be read at a distance (oh yeah thats saving me a lot), this media monitoring device, Cars with GPS that track where I have been, it is a sad day when technology stopped benifiting the citizen and now benifits the corporations. I am in marketing and advertising believe me organizations do not need to gain another one up on the consumers of the world. Why not use such a technology benifit society and not help giant organization get larger profits.

Posted by Chad Johnson | September 11, 2007 7:58 AM

I've been more than a little freaked out that my Tivo is suggestively recording programs for me. I guess there's an algorithm that the Tivo folks use to determine what I like, based on what I'm already watching and tivo-ing.

I don't know what this says about me, or my tv-watching habits, but it's constantly suggesting that I watch "A Different World". Yeah, the Cosby Show spinoff about Lisa Bonet's character going off to college. And "Roseanne". And "Night Court".

Apparently, my current tv-watching habits would lead one to believe that I love 80's sitcoms. Who knew?

I guess Tivo knows...

Posted by atom | September 11, 2007 10:59 AM

Post a comment

The following HTML tags are allowed in your comments:
+ Bold: <b>Text</b>
+ Italic: <i>Text</i>
+ Link: <a href="http://url" target="_blank">Link</a>
Fields marked with * are required.

Comment Preview appears above this form upon pressing the "preview" button. Edit your comment and press "preview" again, until you are satisfied with your comment.

Your comment may not appear on the blog until several minutes after it was submitted.

September 2007
2 3 4 5 6 7 8
9 10 11 12 13 14 15
16 17 18 19 20 21 22
23 24 25 26 27 28 29

Master Archive

MPR News

Listen Now

On Air

Live Wire

Other Radio Streams from MPR

Classical MPR
Radio Heartland