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Who’s really watching?

May 14, 2001  •  Post A Comment

The diary, the precious source of data that has provided the basis for demographic information and advertising rates in local television markets for the past 51 years appears to be on the fast track to obsolescence. This system, the staple of television ratings, isn’t going away altogether, but it could be replaced in many large markets by the more technologically advanced meters.
That may mean more advertising money for local cable stations, since meters usually provide a more complete picture of cable viewership. According to the Cabletelevision Advertising Bureau, diaries understate cable viewing by up to 40 percent.
Radio ratings firm Arbitron is testing its portable people meter in Wilmington, Del., and Nielsen Media Research has scheduled a May launch to demonstrate its people meter in the Boston market. Meanwhile, Adcom continues to move forward with the rollout of household meters in local markets around the country. The Nielsen competitor has traditionally relied on telephone surveys rather than diaries to procure demographic information. The methods are different, but the byproduct is the same-elimination of the diary.
The Cabletelevision Advertising Bureau will be happy to kiss the diaries goodbye wherever it can. “The big picture is getting off the paper diary, which is a highly biased instrument,” said Jon Sims, vice president research for CAB.
The diary was born in 1950 when ABC, CBS and NBC were viewers’ only choices, he said. “That’s when the diary worked. The device was never meant to handle multiple sets with multiple people watching. It’s too taxing on people’s memory to figure out what they watched,” he said.
The consensus in the industry is that meters, such as the ones Nielsen uses for national ratings, are the most accurate method for obtaining ratings and demographic information. With people meters, household members push a button on the device to indicate who is watching a particular show. Since Nielsen already has collected demographic information on those households, it is able to put the data together to paint a complete picture of the group of people viewing various shows.
The top 50 markets still rely on a combination of household meters and diaries for local viewing information. In each of those markets, meters provide household ratings information, which is then matched with demographic information obtained from diaries during sweeps. The two sets of data are culled from two different samples.
But that could change soon if Nielsen is satisfied with the results of its Boston people meter trial, which will begin this month with a sample of 420 homes and expand to 600 by August. The company will compare the results of the people meter trial with its previous local measurement data from the Boston market, said Jack Loftus, a spokesman for Nielsen. His expectation is that the people meter data will be more accurate and will allow Nielsen to phase out the use of diaries in some markets. “We think [the people meter] is a better measurement tool. We are able to offer tuning and viewing information from the same sample,” he said.
Nielsen plans to introduce people meters in nine markets in addition to Boston during the next three years. When the Boston trial is completed at the end of this year, Nielsen plans to turn off the household meter sample and rely solely on people meter data in Boston.
Jim Sullivan, vice president and general manager for AT&T Media Services in Boston, is eager to see the results of the trial. AT&T Media Services in Boston oversees the Boston Interconnect, the selling group for Boston multiple system operators. “What we’re hoping is that this makes it easier for advertisers to make good decisions about target programming to reach their audience,” he said. The information provided to buyers on programs and networks will be much more accurate because the people meters eliminate the problem of “zero sell,” he said.
Zero sell refers to a program for which no demographic data is available. This usually occurs with shows that have lower ratings or aren’t as heavily promoted, explained Mr. Sullivan. Many cable programs fall into those categories, he said. Though the show will have household ratings from the household meters, it won’t have the corresponding demographic information from diaries because the diary users forget to notate the show. It’s easier to remember watching “Friends” on NBC than “Hogan’s Heroes” on TV Land, for example.
“Diaries are just incomplete. Advertisers need demographic information, and we have zero sell on a lot of programs,” said Mr. Sullivan. Most of the time, salespeople must compare the zero sell program with a comparable show with demographic ratings when selling ads.
“It’s pretty brutal. That’s why we’re really excited about people meters, because it’s going to fill in the zero sell,” he said. “We can spend more time selling ads instead of explaining the data. What it all comes down to is we can now get very accurate data where the demographic information is tied to the household rating,” he said.
That also makes buyers happy. More sophisticated ratings data will help advertisers find their consumers, said John Lazarus, senior vice president and director, national broadcast operations, at TN Media in New York. More information to identify a target audience is always better, he said.
Arbitron recently entered the TV ratings game with the test of its portable people meter (PPM) in Wilmington, part of the Philadelphia radio designated market area. The PPM is a device that users carry and it measures radio and TV listening and viewing, said Kevin Smith, senior vice president cable services and PPM development at Arbitron.
The device is totally passive, meaning the wearer does not have to press buttons to record usage. Instead, Arbitron works with broadcasters, cable networks and radio stations to get them to include an inaudible tone in their programs. The tone is then picked up by the PPM, which records all the media consumption throughout the day.
The test began in March with a panel of 300, and Arbitron plans to increase the panel to 1,500 people throughout the Philadelphia designated market area by 2002. Currently the PPM can pick up codes from about 36 radio stations, nearly all local TV stations and about a dozen ad-supported cable networks in the area, said Mr. Smith.
Arbitron hopes the test proves the viability of a multimedia measurement tool. The PPM now provides data on total radio listening, total television viewing and total cable viewing for those stations and networks with encoded signals. During the second phase of the trial, when the sample size swells to 1,500, Arbitron will break down tuning time by station.
Since the sample size will be significantly larger than Nielsen’s local samples, Mr. Smith expects to procure more data on cable networks and also reduce the amount of zero sells, since cable will have more rated inventory. He is hopeful that advertisers will want to assess a user’s total media consumption. “What this will do is show you how to mesh these numbers in a campaign in a way that’s never been done before-for a total media campaign. Audiences are becoming fragmented, so a single source doesn’t cut it anymore,” he said.
Arbitron’s system is attractive to TN Media’s Mr. Lazarus, who believes integrated marketing is the direction in which advertising is headed. “I’m working on integrated marketing, and if this is a way for me to better evaluate print, radio, broadcast and cable, it has value,” he said.
While Nielsen is a partner in Arbitron’s PPM test and has an option to join in a commercial deployment, Nielsen’s Mr. Loftus said the system has some drawbacks. While Nielsen likes the fact that the PPM relies on large samples and is portable and noninvasive, Mr. Loftus said it is completely dependent on broadcasters and cable networks inserting a code into their signals, which may be difficult to ensure. He expects the PPM could be used in some markets that do not want or cannot afford to use people meters, but he said it is likely diaries will still be
used in most of the 210 markets.
Deerfield Beach, Fla.-based Adcom is also exploring household meter use. The company now rates three markets-Jacksonville, Fla., Dallas and San Francisco-using a household meter.
Adcom’s samples are about six to 10 times larger then Nielsen’s local markets samples, said Bill Livek, CEO and president of the company. For instance, Adcom meters 1,600 cable households in San Francisco compared with the 240 cable homes included in Nielsen’s market panel there, he said. The larger sample size provides a greater degree of reliability in reconstructing cable viewership, he said, thereby reducing zero sells.
AT&T is Adcom’s primary customer, and the company is in talks with other cable operators to expand its services, said Mr. Livek.