Some might say that TV is too much a business of bean counters, but Arthur C. Nielsen, Jr., who died Monday, was perhaps the most culturally influential bean counter of them all. Because, after all, the beans whose counting he revolutionized were all of us.
TV is a commercial business, and shows (excepting public TV) are on the air because they make money for someone. In broadcast, and to a large extent cable TV, they do that by generating payments from advertisers, and those payments are generated by determining who watches those shows, and in what numbers. The Nielsen company—which tracked other business measures before getting into the TV-audience business in the early days of the medium—facilitated that by providing data.
The quality and meaning of that data has been questioned over time: whether Nielsen provides the best sample possible, for instance, or more recently whether it does a good enough job measuring DVR viewership or out-of-home viewing. Another popular criticism—the focus on “demos,” or particular age and other demographic slices—is more a function of what advertisers have chosen to value. But Nielsen’s numbers helped them to set that value.
And while A.C. Nielsen died at 92, well beyond the 18-to-49 demo that mainly determines what TV gets made and stays on the air, he was arguably one of the most influential out-of-the-demo members of the audience ever. RIP.