Anna Waigand is a 28-year-old resident of Washington, D.C. She enjoys biking, dogs and her job as a manager at New District Brewing Co. And until a few weeks ago, she was part of a small group of elite but anonymous tastemakers who are responsible for almost everything that appears on your TV screen.
For two years, Waigand was part of a Nielsen household.
There are 40,000 households in the United States that allow Nielsen Media Research to keep tabs on every minute of TV they watch. Using various statistical models, Nielsen turns that data into the ratings that the entire industry uses to make programming decisions, thereby determining what you ultimately see on television, and even on the devices that let you stream TV shows.
Generally speaking, the first rule of being in a Nielsen household is that you don’t talk about being in a Nielsen household. The research giant prefers its families to say nothing about the process while they’re part of the program. But Waigand agreed to speak with International Business Times after the fact.
If you're wondering just how much power Nielsen ratings hold, consider that more than $70 billion per year in advertising spending rides on them; or that streaming contracts worth hundreds of millions — or even billions — of dollars hinge on knowing just how big a demand there might be for back seasons of TV series.
That's a lot of power. Unsurprisingly, the idea of being a Nielsen household has always fascinated Waigand, who knew about the concept from general pop-culture osmosis, and so when Nielsen came calling, she eagerly agreed to be part of its national TV sample.
What followed was something rather like a relationship: There's the initial courtship; they ask to move in; and then, a couple of years later, they leave, a dust-free patch on the top of your TV the only reminder that they were ever there.
The courting began when Waigand arrived home from work one day to see a note from Nielsen stuck to her front door, "wanting to talk." Then there was a survey, which came with $20 in cash. Then there was a gift basket with Hawaiian coffee and fancy nuts, which Waigand posted to her Instagram account.
"I posted that before they told me we're not supposed to let anyone know we're a Nielsen household," Waigand says. "I was like, 'Sure, sure, of course, I would never tell anyone...' Woops."
Nielsen representatives came to Waigand's D.C. house and interviewed her and her then-roommate. Then they came back to set up the box that measures audio from the TV set and sends the information to Nielsen. The box itself is about the size of a modem or router, with a screen that displays text prompts, like "Who's watching?"
Though Nielsen’s sample size of 40,000 households may seem small, Nielsen researchers take pains to ensure that it is demographically representative of the entire American viewing public. Waigand also opted to allow Nielsen to track her computer activity, an intimate — and sometimes irritating — gesture of trust. "I watch a lot of stuff on my computer, so that seemed like a good thing to do," she says.
At the time Waigand started participating, she says Nielsen didn't have an option for tracking viewing done on iPhones or iPads. (Nielsen is in the process of integrating mobile viewing into what it calls "Total Audience Measurement" ratings.)
In order to fulfill your duties as a Nielsen viewer, you have to sign in once you turn your TV on with a special remote control, which includes buttons for each member of the household. "I'd press my button and the box would read, 'Hello, Anna,'" Waigand says. Every half hour, the box prompts you to let it know if the same people are watching. (To do this, the box actually flashes the words “same people.”) There's also an option to tell the box if you have visitors, and you can enter their age and gender into the system. "It's super simple," she says.
Though there were a few bumps, as there are in any relationship.
"Once, I lost the remote that you have to sign in with," she recalls. You can still watch TV when not signed in, but the box, Waigand says, blinks angrily at you, asking you to please, for God's sake, just tell it who's watching.
"I think I was slightly hungover, and I was like, 'Screw this.' So I got a plastic bag and put it over the top of the box that said 'Who's watching?' and kept blinking at me."
Not long after, Waigand's Nielsen representative stopped by to see what was wrong with the machine. "He came in the room and saw the bag over the box and just gasped," she says with a laugh. "They gave us extra remotes after that."
Or, she says, "I'd pass out in front of the TV" — fairly common behavior — "and wake up to 'same people?' and feel really guilty." This started happening so often that Nielsen thought there must be something wrong with her box.
"I got a lot fewer calls after I switched to watching TV on my computer in my bed and falling asleep there," Waigand says.
Even having to sign in on her computer became a chore, after a while. "The software kept doing weird things to my speakers, too," she says.
In exchange for the guilt and annoyance, Nielsen sends a check every six months or so; Waigand received checks for $75 and $150.
But she was well aware of the power she held, too, and the privilege that came with that power. "There were definitely shows that I would intentionally watch live because I wanted them to be renewed," she says. "Game of Thrones," though in no danger of cancellation, is a particular favorite.
And there are other shows she's caught up on — most recently, Comedy Central's "Broad City." "I love the fact that it's genuinely about a friendship between two women, and really nothing more," she says.
Not for nothing, Comedy Central renewed "Broad City" for two seasons at once back in January.
Two years is a decent run for a relationship, particularly in one's 20s, and like some Gen Y relationships, the end of Waigand's fling with Nielsen was somewhat anticlimactic. Someone from Nielsen simply called to set up a time to collect their equipment, and then they were gone. No note, no final words. "They kind of ghosted me, actually," she says with a laugh.
"It almost did feel like a breakup," she adds. "I was actually a little sad."