U.S. Media Market Researcher

Arthur Charles (A.C.) Nielsen established and gave his name to the world's largest market research organization and to the principal U.S. television ratings system. After working as an engineer in the Chicago area, in 1923, with investments from former fraternity brothers he established a firm which reported surveys of the performance and production of industrial equipment. A decade later--during the Great Depression--faced with reduced manufacturing on which to study and report, the company launched the Nielsen Food and Drug Index. Begun in 1933 and 1934, these regular reports on volume and price of packaged good sales in a national sample of grocery stores and pharmacies became essential to the packaged goods industry. And A. C. Nielsen became the preeminent U.S. marketing research firm.

Because the Depression was also a period of rapid growth for radio and radio advertising Nielsen was encouraged to begin measuring radio audiences. In the spring of 1936 he attended a meeting of the Market Research Council in New York at which the speaker was Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) instructor Robert Elder. Elder described the use of a mechanical recorder which could be attached to the tuning mechanism of a radio receiver, providing a continuous record of the stations to which the set was tuned. The device had been developed independently by Claude Robinson while a student at Columbia University and by Elder with Louis F. Woodruff at MIT. Nielsen quickly acquired the meters that had so far been produced, as well as patent rights and trademark registration for the Audimeter, as the device was known. Regular audience surveys conducted with the Audimeter (the Nielsen Radio Index or NRI) began in December 1942. The Audimeter became the principal form of radio ratings when in March 1950 Nielsen purchased C. E. Hooper's radio and television ratings services.

In 1939 the A. C. Nielsen Co. Ltd., had been organized in London. The internationalization of the company increased, especially after 1957 when A. C. Nielsen, Jr. became company president.

In 1963 Congressional Hearings studying ratings and their influence upon programming in television focused considerable criticism upon the ratings industry and on the reliability of audience measurement surveys. In that same year Nielsen had discontinued radio Audimeter reports because the increased number of radio stations on the dial made it difficult for the device to distinguish among them. As a stop-gap measure, the company began a diary survey method for radio measurement (Audiologs). Weaknesses in this method attracted unfavorable attention during the hearings. Nielsen shut down the Audiolog operation, designed what he considered a reliable radio audience measurement system and attempted to market it to the radio industry. Finding much resistance he never brought this service into being.

By 1963 Nielsen was out of the radio ratings business, preferring to concentrate on the relatively young national and local television audience measurement services--the National Television Index (NTI) and Nielsen Station Index (NSI), respectively. In June 1980 A. C. Nielsen died in Chicago.

In 1984 his company merged with information giant Dunn and Bradstreet.

-James Fletcher


Arthur C. Nielsen
Photo courtesy of A.C. Nielsen Company

ARTHUR CHARLES NIELSEN, SR. Born in Chicago, Illinois, U.S.A., 5 September 1897. Educated at University of Wisconsin, B.S. summa cum laude 1918. Married: Gertrude B. Smith, 1918; three daughters, two sons. Served in U.S. Naval Reserve, 1918. Worked as electrical engineer for Isko Company, Chicago, 1919-20, and H. P. Gould Company, Chicago, 1920-23; president, 1923-57, and chair, 1957-80, A. C. Nielsen Company; established numerous Nielsen offices in U.S. and abroad. Recipient: silver medal, Annual Advertisement Awards Committee, 1936; award for outstanding service, Chicago Federated Advertisements Club, 1941; Paul D. Converse Award, American Marketing Association, 1951 and 1970; elected to Hall of Fame in Distribution in 1953; Knight in Order of Dannebrog, 1961; Parlin Memorial Award, 1963; annual award, International Advertisement Association, 1966; marketing Man of the Year, 1970; elected to National Lawn Tennis Hall of Fame, 1971. Died in Chicago, Illinois, 1 June 1980.


Buzzard, Karen. Chains of Gold: Marketing the Ratings and Rating the Markets. Metuchen, New Jersey: Scarecrow Press, 1990.

______________. Electronic Media Ratings: Turning Audiences Into Dollars and Sense. Boston, Massachusetts: Focal, 1992.


See also A.C. Nielsen Company; Demographics; Ratings; Share; Market