Editorial: People Meter makes sense

Feb 11, 2002  •  Post A Comment

Nielsen Media Research just can’t win. Under siege by upstart ratings services from Adcom and Arbitron, the company has been working to improve the accuracy of its measurement systems by introducing the People Meter into local markets. But its first serious test of the system, under way in Boston since spring 2001, has provoked howls of protest from every major station in that market.
The stations have launched a unified effort to discredit the People Meter and to prevent its implementation. They are threatening a mutiny of sorts, vowing to pull out of the Nielsen service if the company goes through with its plan to implement the People Meters by May sweeps. It would be the first rebellion against Nielsen by stations in a major market.
The TV stations claim the People Meter is less accurate than the market’s current system, a combination of old-fashioned diaries, used during sweeps to provide demographic data, and set-tuning meters, which provide overnight household data year-round. It’s a tough argument to make, since almost everyone except the stations is convinced the People Meter is a superior system.
The People Meter has been the standard for national ratings measurement since the late 1980s. Ad buyers and cable outlets see it as a potential leap forward in accuracy for local markets, where they are eager to see it implemented. In Boston, where Nielsen says it will go ahead with the program with or without the stations on board, three cable systems and numerous ad agencies are already signed up.
Most insiders believe the stations’ real complaint with the People Meter comes down to cost and market share, two issues that have been exacerbated by the recession. The People Meter service will cost stations more. Nielsen readily admits that fact and has begun to devise creative pricing plans to help ease the pain for stations.
Market share may be a stickier issue. The two systems tend to produce a wide disparity in results, with the major stations faring much better under the old diary/set-tuning meter system. Ratings for some stations have reportedly dropped by as much as 20 percent with the People Meter. One frequently cited explanation is that the diary system has underestimated cable’s market share because viewers, when entering their viewing habits in the diaries, tend to have better recall of programming with the most buzz-such as major network shows-and may tend to forget much of their cable viewing.
The disparity underscores the need for the most accurate ratings data available. Particularly in a recession, advertisers need to know what they’re buying-and they will be far more willing to spend money in a market where they can get their hands on reliable data.
The People Meter is an improvement in ratings technology and an inevitable and important step in the right direction. In the long run, it will benefit stations as well as the rest of the television industry. The Boston stations would do well to end their holdout and join the 21st century.