Friday, June 18, 2010

A Watch for All Time

This is a Rolex Oyster Perpetual automatic wristwatch, reference number 6332, caliber A260, manufactured in late 1954. I wish I owned it. I found it up for auction only after it had been sold by preeminent Rolex historian and author James Dowling. I don't know what it sold for. As a vintage Rolex, one of the last true bubbleback models, I'm guessing it would go for anywhere from $2,000 on up. It's historic value makes it particularly interesting.

At this point you're probably wondering what does a nearly 56 year-old luxury watch with a fair amount of dial patina have to do with television. Stay with me.

Quoting from Dowling's website:

What is really interesting is the case back engraving, which reads “The Property of A. C. Nielsen Company Limited Oxford”; A. C. Nielsen are the company who monitor television viewing habits both in the US and in the UK. According to a 1956 Rolex advertisement all of Nielsen’s field operatives were issued with a Rolex watch, this is obviously one of them.

You've no doubt have heard of the Nielsen ratings. Each "sweeps" period a number of households are surveyed to find out what people are watching. This is deadly serious business, as ratings determine, for the most part, the rates networks and local stations can charge for advertising availability during a given time period. That's mighty oversimplified, but you get the point.

Advertisers ranging in size and scope from Time Warner to the Wapakoneta School System (I recently recorded a voiceover for their open enrollment spot. And yes, I can pronounce it.) pay to get on the air. That money goes to run the TV stations and networks, and also pays for those entities to subscribe to Nielsen. Ah-ha! You didn't think those ratings were handed out for free did you? Sure, the ratings become public knowledge, but if you want details, direct access, and to be able to use them in your marketing you gotta subscribe.

So, networks and stations pay Nielsen for the ratings. That fee goes to operate the Nielsen company, and apparently back in the '50's, to buy their employees Rolex watches. And now you know where the money goes.

Rest assured, here in the 21st century part of the Wapakoneta School System's budget does not end up as bling on the wrist of a Nielsen employee - except the CEO. Technology has changed, not just in how ratings are assimilated but in the fact that a $10 Timex will do what a Nielsen field rep needs it to do just fine. But back in the '50's quartz movements, electronic displays, and radio synchronizing watches was science fiction. Hell, Dick Tracy's 2-way wrist radio was still AM. These guys needed a rock solid, dependable timepiece to do the job. In the days of mechanical watches, Rolex was the choice. Rather than seen as a luxury item the Oyster Perpetual was seen as a precision tool, an accurate and reliable chronometer that wasn't grossly overpriced or made out of gold and diamonds. The estimated cost of such a watch in the day of purchased retail was $100. Nielsen undoubtedly bought theirs at a volume discount - something Rolex rarely does - which brought the price of each watch down at least a little.

Watch aficionados can argue that the Zenith Caliber 135 would've been a better choice, but let's not get into that.

This 1956 ad from England reveals some interesting facts. This was the fledgling days of ITA, the only competitor to the BBC at the time. Two channels. And yet they actually conducted ratings surveys in England. Why? Well, the BBC is government operated. Citizens pay a TV tax just to own a receiver. And like any branch of Parliament, we need disclosure, transparency. Is our tax money being spent wisely? Again, in that era the Rolex was viewed as a tool for the professional, not needless accessorizing. These days the British taxpayer would not stand for public funds ending up in the form of a Rolex.

Unless Camilla decides she wants a Datejust.

We also learn from the ad that Nielsen was actually using a mechanical devise to log viewing habits, the Audimeter. Sounds like a graph paper on a drum arrangement. A precursor to the People Meter? Setting the device to run at the absolute correct time is where the Rolex comes in. Check out that '50's era television. Anybody know the brand? You may be surprised to read that British ratings were also used to determine ad rates... on ITA only. Check out the ad rate breakout at the bottom of the page. A rate of 700 pounds for a 30 seconds spot seems rather quaint. (In those days "London Weekend" was like the Thursday night "Must See" lineup.) Ah, but it's only 385 pounds to get on the Birmingham transmitter.

Today, Nielsen has to track dozens of channels from cable, satellite and local broadcast, plus contend with recording devices in their various forms and the possibility of watching The Office on their phone. They have to squeeze their blood from the broadcasting rock, which finds itself in a revenue pinch due ever increasing viewer choices and an economy stuck in neutral. If a Nielsen employee wants to know what time it is, he can simply look at the display on his Blackberry. It took skill and talent to build those watches. Like the programming we see today, there is scarce little room for that sort of thing in television anymore.