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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

TV Sampling: A Contested Art

It is said that under communism, when television producers wanted to judge the popularity of televisions programs, they would simply count the number of fan letters that had been received in the mail. At that time, when the advertising market was nonexistent and television ratings ranked low in importance for TV executives, this rather unscientific method served as the Soviet alternative to the Nielsen ratings.

In sophisticated markets, advertisers pore over ratings figures -- broken down by age, gender and income group -- in planning their advertising campaigns. The ratings also largely define what television stations can charge for showing commercials.

Since 1992, Russia has made rapid moves toward such sophistication. Spurred by advertisers who want information about television viewing trends, three companies -- ComCon 2, Russian Research, and the Public Opinion Foundation -- have emerged to provide regular analysis of the Russian television market.

In most European countries and the United States, the existence of three firms competing with one another over television ratings is virtually unheard of. According to Nicholas North, director of Russian Research, in most European countries there is one company that carries out research into television viewing habits. The television companies get together, he said, and decide upon the information they would like to have collected. Then they contract out with one company that conducts the analysis. In the United States the main system is Nielsen, while in Britain the company is AGB.

In Russia, each of the three companies uses a different methodology, which complicates life for an advertising manager who is trying to get an accurate and consistent picture of television viewing patterns. Industry experts say that ComCon 2 and Russian Research are beginning to produce similar results, but this is not always the case. (See Charts).

Both Russian Research and ComCon 2 say they use Gallup-style, Western data collection techniques. Since its inception in 1992, Russian Research has employed a respondent pool of 2,800 individuals in European Russia. This involves making sure the demographic split of the test group -- that is to say, the percentages of women, men, well-off and working-class viewers in the sample -- equal the percentages of those in the population. Each individual keeps a daily dairy that keeps tracks of the programs watched in terms of 15-minute segments of viewing.

At ComCon 2, the sample pool consists of 1,600 individuals spread across Russia, says Vladimir Shipkov, media director at the company. Before October 1995, ComCon 2 conducted its research by telephone, which industry experts say is a less reliable method of data collection. But since October, ComCon 2 has begun to use the daily dairy method. The company distributes "family diaries," one for each television in the household, which are journals divided into 15-minute segments. At Russian Research, on the other hand, "individual diaries" are used, assigned to each person in the family rather than to the family as a whole. Says ComCon 2's Shipkov, "Our method avoids the problem of two separate diaries indicating that the same set was tuned into two different channels at the same time."

Of the three, the Public Opinion Foundation uses the most non-standard information gathering methods. Instead of using 15-minute diaries it employs a "program" which includes a list of the television shows to be aired that day. The respondent marks the program according to hourly blocks. Unlike at ComCon and Russian Research, where the daily diaries are collected about once a week, at the Public Opinion Foundation, "interviewers" visit the respondents' homes every day to collect the programs.

"Russian Research and ComCon 2 use a Western approach [by employing the 15-minute daily diaries]. This might work in the West, but a Russian person most often will simply not fill out the form," said Alexander Oslon, general director of the Public Opinion Foundation. "Then later he will make up the results when he needs to return the diary." His organization employs a sample of "350 to 400" families in Moscow and does not conduct research regularly outside of Moscow.

But according to Shipkov of ComCon 2, the method of dividing the day into hourly blocs is not an accurate way to record how much time people spent in front of their televisions. "The viewer could have watched the program for five minutes or an hour," he said.

Industry experts say that Russian Research, largely because it has been conducting Western-style research the longest, is the most widely used base of information by advertising companies. Says Andrei Deryugin of the advertising agency Friedman and Rose, "[Russian Research's] methodology is better because they use Gallup methods."

Some television stations agree: "We use Russian research almost exclusively," said Alexander Sharikov, deputy head of sociological research at The Russian State Television & Radio Company, or RTR, the state-owned second channel.

However, he added that Russian Research's information gathering process still needs to be perfected, saying "Russian Research is badly represented in rural areas, their samples tend to have a disproportionately large number of richer and more educated people, and the information arrives later than it does from ComCon."

At NTV, which is owned by MOST-Bank and is Russia's main private channel, ComCon 2 and the Public Opinion Foundation take priority over Russian Research, says Tatyana Blinova, a researcher there. "I think the methodology is more accurate for ComCon 2 and the Public Opinion Foundation," she said. At ORT Russian Public Television, the director of sociological research, Vsevolod Vilchik, says "The Public Opinion Foundation for us serves as the base."

Conducting research throughout Russia is a complicated process for a number of reasons, chief among them because local television channels broadcast television programs from the national networks at differing times. According to ComCon 2's Shipkov, "In each city there are local channels that transmit rebroadcasts from stations" such as TV6 or NTV. "One channel may show programs from more than one television company."

Vilchik of ORT does not have much confidence in the ability of companies to keep track of what programs are running on what channels. "In reality this is almost impossible to do," he said.

For Alexander Oslon, general director of the Public Opinion Foundation, these problems with local television stations make accurate data collection impossible. He says: "Every city has its specifics, and therefore the only accurate data we can collect is in Moscow." For this reason, he says, the Public Opinion Foundation only does regular research in the Russian capital.

Despite the rapid movement toward the creation of a more Westernized system of data collection and analysis, there seems to be no tendency yet toward creating an industry standard as there exists in the West, says Alexei Mitrifonov, general director of the Russian Fund for the Development of Television. But he added that competition between Russian Research and ComCon 2 is heating up and he predicted that the winner of that battle could become the industry bellwether.