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Television Kate Taylor: Numeris is calling, but Canadians need more information about TV ratings

You've probably noticed the nice lady from Numeris. She's on those television ads, sweetly suggesting that when Numeris calls you might want to pick up the phone and help shape the future of TV.

Sometimes, her pitch is followed by images of outraged homeowners yelling "Boneheads!" or "Idiots!" down the phone. The nice lady (she is actually actress Stephanie Belding) then politely reiterates: "Numeris. Our name is Numeris."

Numeris compiles the ratings for Canadian radio and television, and the organization has recently decided that self-deprecation and humour are the best approach. It used to be called the Bureau of Broadcast Measurement and then just BBM, until BlackBerry muscled in on that acronym for its messenger app. Legal action ensued but eventually "saner heads prevailed," Numeris CEO Jim MacLeod says. "We wanted to rebrand anyway. BBM conjures up diaries and books and we're cutting edge."

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The cutting edge is the PPM or personal people meter, a small wireless device worn by volunteers that registers coded signals sent out by radio and television programs and relays them back to Numeris. Those codes are compiled from a large panel of volunteers that reflects the makeup of the Canadian population and, bingo, you have ratings.

To assemble the panels, Numeris needs to call people at home, ask them a few questions and invite them to participate. The organization makes nine million calls a year – and half of you don't even pick up. The ad campaign will help ensure people recognize the new name on call display.

The funny thing about the ratings business is that as fragmented audiences are shifting to the Internet, the numbers have ballooned. That's only because measurement is much more sophisticated: Numeris still uses the old diary system in smaller markets, but the bulk of the population is now covered by devices that measure people who play back a favourite show on the PVR, overhear the radio in a store, wander into the room while others are watching the big game or see it at a bar. Sports ratings, in particular, shot up after the introduction of PPMs across the country in 2009. There has been criticism of a system that measures so much passive viewing and listening, but MacLeod argues it provides the whole picture and says advertisers understand the different levels of engagement.

It may seem strange to say, but we don't talk enough about TV ratings in Canada. Partly, this is cultural: The top-rated shows are American, so stories about the winners just seem like proxies for stories about U.S. viewing habits. MacLeod notes that, when reporting those whopping Super Bowl ratings, many Canadian media just referred to the U.S. numbers from Nielsen. Numeris is better recognized in Quebec, where a story about a top rating is often a story about the popularity of a local star.

But the problem is also a structural one: In the United States, Nielsen is a private company that can make its own decisions about how strategic it might be to share its proprietary information with the public. Overnight numbers are routinely reported as the networks battle it out for top spot.

Numeris, on the other hand, is a non-profit organization that is governed by the radio, TV and ad industries. It has no discretion to release numbers beyond the list of top-30 shows it publishes nine days after the end of the viewing week. Individual broadcasters will quickly release numbers that make them look good – CTV wants you to know that 9.23 million Canadians watched the Super Bowl – but clam up pretty quickly when journalists ask about shows that aren't performing. (As a public broadcaster, CBC is more open with the information.)

Knowledge about ratings can provide a cultural reality check. Ratings can tell you that that Mad Men is much more popular with TV critics than it is with general audiences. Ratings can tell you that the beleaguered CBC is actually not doing so badly: Murdoch Mysteries, The Book of Negroes, Schitt's Creek and The Mercer Report all made it to the top 30 during the week of Jan. 25.

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But that means it was an unusual week in Canadian television; most seasons, few Canadian shows appear on that list, which is why relying on Numeris's public data kills awareness of Canadian television. Forget the water cooler; Canadians' preferences when it comes to their own programming are an arcane professional discussion behind closed doors. It would be great to delve deeper, but the top 30 is all you get.

The nice folks at Numeris just wish you'd take their calls; I just wish they'd take mine.

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