The 2020 Census threatens to be a watershed moment for our industry. Whether you’re focusing on news, sports, entertainment, or other programming, knowing your audience is the key to success. Next year, the once-a-decade Census will be administered to every person in the United States. The impact of their answers – or whether they answer at all – goes beyond congressional representation and federal funding for programs. It strikes at the heart of our industry.
Simply put, an incomplete Census count means fewer members of the audience will be represented in data. An incomplete Census means less diversity both on and off screen as programming decisions respond to the available data. An incomplete Census means lower ratings and lower ad revenue. In short, an incomplete Census means we’re all down for the count.
In short, an incomplete Census means we’re all down for the count.
In typical Census years, the count can prove problematic. In the 2010 Census, a generally uncontroversial Census, there was an undercount of 400,000 Hispanic children. Putting ourselves in the shoes of others, we must imagine communities where an undercount will have a significant impact. School districts having to do more with even less than before. Infrastructure that is already in need of repair not receiving necessary funds and impacting the already bumpy economic growth of some areas. Healthcare services that may serve as a band-aid but are far from a cure.
This year, we face two daunting challenges. The first is the digitization of the Census. In 2020, the Census bureau’s default is encouraging respondents to submit their forms online. While efficient, this has the potential to leave out large numbers of the population who remain stuck on the wrong side of the digital divide. The Census Bureau has pledged to follow up with mail-in forms and looking to hire Census takers who can visit homes and other places of residence to ensure a complete and accurate count.
Another critical challenge is the “citizenship question,” where respondents are asked if they are a citizen. This question will depress response rates – most notably among members of Hispanic America – in an unprecedented fashion. The Census Bureau itself has published research demonstrating that three groups of people are less likely to answer the Census based on the inclusion of this question: naturalized citizens, immigrants in the United States with legal status, and undocumented immigrants. If segments of America do not respond to the Census due to fear or for other reasons, the economic and societal impact will be significant.
Uses for this data are practically innumerable both from a business and social information perspective. Questions that could provide a deeper window into American life and be answered by Census data include: How many non-traditional households do we now have and how are they composed and distributed from coast to coast? Where is consumer buying power concentrated? How is America changing racially, ethnically, and along gender and age lines?
Above all, the threshold question must be: without our involvement will we obtain an accurate picture of America? Nielsen famously uses Census data to arrive at its conclusions. If this information is incomplete and we have a distorted picture of who our audience is, our decisions could be less informed, and our messages may be received with a sigh from our viewers instead of acclaim.
The stakes could not be higher for our industry whose standards demand we be pitch-perfect. Millions of people and millions of dollars lost to an incomplete count are at stake if we sit on our hands. Fewer potential advertisers will want to advertise or will advertise less if ratings decline overall or take a notable dip. We may also see less inclusive programming and fewer executives of color in the C-suite. Our nation demands that we do our utmost to ensure an accurate count.
Our business has been to inform, entertain, and reflect America in our programming. The only way we can do that is with an accurate count that allows us to tell our nation’s stories the way they deserve to be told: truthfully, contemporaneously, and with an eye toward the next chapter of our country’s unfolding story. We can only do that if every media company encourages their audience to fill out the Census. From federal stakes to local impacts, there is not one aspect of the media business the Census does not touch. Unless we encourage our audience to stand up and be counted, our industry may face a less than ideal sum.