CHICAGO — Arthur C. Nielsen Jr., whose family company has been the final word on whether television shows are hot or not for more than a half-century, has died in the suburban Chicago community where he lived most of his life. He was 92.
Nielsen, who died Monday in Winnetka, suffered from Parkinson’s disease, his son said.
It was the company founded by his father and then run by Nielsen that created the measurement system under which the entire multibillion-dollar television industry is based and, from the late 1950s on, the name synonymous with U.S. television viewing habits. Children and parents alike wondered who in their neighborhoods was being contacted and asked about what they were watching or, lat er, whether Nielsen had attached electronic meters to their TV sets.
Adding to the mystery is Nielsen’s closely guarded practice of finding families and keeping them anonymous. Before the meters — currently in 22,000 U.S. homes — families would write “Nielsen diaries” detailing what they watched, and the company used the information to create ratings that came to be known simply as the Nielsens.
The company’s influence in the business of measuring television ratings is unmatched. And even if television networks grumble that the virtual monopoly is slow in responding to some of their concerns, none can run their businesses without Nielsen. The numbers have taken on a greater significance, and are watched more carefully for accuracy, now that there are so many networks slicing viewership into several smaller segments.
A.C. Nielsen Jr. “really was the father of what Nielsen is today,” said David Poltrack, chief researcher at CBS, where he has worked since 1969. “His father started the company and when he turned it over to Art junior it was just the beginning of the media measurement business.”
Nielsen grew up watching his father run an engineering research business that measured performance in factories. When the Great Depression hit, the business went broke, said J. Christopher Nielsen, Arthur Nielsen Jr.’s son.
The elder Nielsen soon started a successful retail index business that measured sales in grocery and drug stores and then decided to go into measuring the popularity of various radio shows.
When he got out of the service after World War II, Nielsen Jr. joined his father’s company. Two 1980s profiles in Forbes said it was Nielsen Jr.’s experience in the army with a machine used to turn out artillery calculations that prompted his father to purchase one of IBM’s first computers.
At a time when other broadcast executives were gauging the size of a radio audience by the number of letters received — “They’d weigh the darn mailbags,” Nielsen told Forbes — the Nielsen company was doing it electronically.
As the company grew and expanded to television, it also maintained a coupon clearinghouse, the retail index operation, a business that handled subscription services for more than 130 magazines and a service providing information to the oil and gas industry.
J. Christopher Nielsen said the company generated about $4 million in revenues when his father joined and saw sales surpass $680 million in 1983, when he stepped down to become chairman emeritus after more than 25 years as president. Between 1945 and the time Nielsen Jr. retired, the company grew from fewer than 1,000 employees having more than 21,000, his son said.
Nielsen Jr. engineered the company’s 1984 sale to Dun & Bradstreet Corp. for $1.3 billion in stock. The company later was acquired by Dutch publishing company VNU. It went public in January as Nielsen Holdings N.V.
“By the time my dad died [the company] was the world leader in five businesses,” J. Christopher Nielsen said.
Nielsen Jr. had a long record of philanthropy and public service, serving on several presidential advisory committees, chairman of the U.S. Census Bureau Advisory committee, and as a commissioner of the U.S. Information Agency.
“He really was a real model for what a corporate leader should be,” Poltrack said. “I say this despite the fact that he ran a monopoly and it drove me crazy.”
Nielsen Jr. also was an accomplished tennis player, winning the United States Father-Son Doubles Championships with his father in 1946 and 1948, according to an e-mail from the company
Nielsen’s wife, Patricia McKnew Nielsen, died in 2005. Besides J. Christopher Nielsen, Arthur Nielsen Jr. is survived by another son, Arthur C. Nielsen III, daughter Elizabeth Cocciarelli, and seven grandchildren.
Associated Press television writer David Bauder contributed to this report from New York.