Oprah’s Tweet for Ratings Runs Afoul of Nielsen Rules

by | February 13, 2012 at 3:38 PM | Oprah Winfrey, TV News

Oprah Winfrey (Photo: Getty Images)

Oprah Winfrey took her case for OWN directly to Nielsen households in a Tweet Sunday night that violated Nielsen rules.

In the Tweet, she specifically asked viewers in Nielsen households to change the channel to her cable channel. But the seemingly off-the-cuff Tweet may have backfired.

That’s because making such a plea violates rules established by Nielsen (and commonly known in the TV industry) that prohibit such direct solicitations. This story on the showbiz Web site Deadline.com cites unnamed sources in the TV business as saying Winfrey — or more specifically, the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN) — will face some sort of sanction for the prohibited plea.

Here’s what happened: Sunday night at a few minutes after 8 p.m. eastern time (coincidentally right as the subsequently high-rated Grammy Awards were getting underway on CBS), a Tweet came from Oprah’s Twitter account that said the following: “Every 1 who can please turn to OWN especially if u have a Neilsen [cq] box.”

On Monday, an OWN spokesperson confirmed that Oprah composed the Tweet (after we asked for the confirmation because, based on the awkward wording of the Tweet, we wondered if someone else had written it).

Our take: Oprah’s decision to send out this Tweet represents an uncharacteristically ill-considered move for her since this Tweet makes her seem as if she’s literally begging people to watch her struggling cable channel. And since the Tweet violated Nielsen’s rules, then that made it even more ill-conceived.

Here’s why: The research companies that produce TV (Nielsen) and radio (Arbitron) ratings have long had rules in place that prohibit networks and individual TV and radio stations from directly addressing the relatively small group of people who have Nielsen boxes hooked up to their TV sets or, in the case of radio, related radio-monitoring hardware (or old-fashioned listening diaries that they fill out by hand).

In other words, TV stations and networks can contrive any number of promotion campaigns to boost viewership (or radio listenership), but none of them are allowed to target Nielsen (or Arbitron) families in the specific way Oprah’s Tweet does.

The rules are laid out in the contracts TV companies sign with Nielsen. In the past, violating this rule often led to sanctions, such as disqualifying the guilty party from the ratings for a time. (For example, years ago, it was not uncommon for offending radio stations to be taken completely out of a three-month Arbitron ratings book — which was often disastrous because stations use those ratings to set the prices they command for commercial time, which is their lifeblood.)

In the case of OWN, the Deadline story suggests Nielsen may decide not to issue any data for OWN’s audience Sunday night — which, for OWN, is unfortunate because it is the one night of the week that the network has seen some modest growth in its viewership this season.

There was no immediate word from Nielsen about the possibility of sanctions. However, the company apparently contacted OWN because the cable network issued this statement from Oprah: “I removed the tweet at the request of Nielsen. I intended no harm and apologize for the reference.”

So what would viewers have seen if they’d ditched the Grammys in favor of OWN Sunday night? Among other things, they would have seen Oprah visiting a family of Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn. We have a bit of that right here: