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Nielsen’s Whiting rates the digital future

Sep 16, 2002  •  Post A Comment

The Personal People Meter, now being tested in Philadelphia by Arbitron, may force advertisers to choose between measuring out-of-home viewers and measuring children’s viewing.
That’s one issue to be resolved before Nielsen Media Research will sign off on the new technology, according to Susan Whiting, president and CEO of Nielsen Media Research.
As CEO, Ms. Whiting, a veteran Nielsen executive, succeeded former CEO John Dimling, who is probably best known for introducing the People Meter in the 1980s. Now Ms. Whiting will manage Nielsen’s transition into the digital future.
In a recent conversation with Electronic Media, she discussed that future and the audience-measurement storms now swirling in Boston and Philadelphia.
Electronic Media: Is it fair to call Nielsen TV’s referee?
Susan Whiting: Or the umpire. I think so.
EM: When you changed the method of measurement in Boston you picked different winners, different losers. Why don’t the Boston stations that stopped taking People Meter data understand?
Ms. Whiting: If you were in a market where there were diaries, and you bring in meters and diaries, you will see changes in the audience levels, because the technologies will reflect that. …
For one year [in Boston we] ran a parallel sample and distributed the results to everyone in the industry who needed them, so that everyone could understand the impact before we actually made a switch. So our role is, as you said, to sometimes be the umpire, but it’s also to help the transition.

EM: Are ad buyers in Boston basing their decisions on your People Meter data?
Ms. Whiting: We have many clients for the information in Boston who have signed contracts for that information, and we have some who have not, and we’re working and negotiating with them to hopefully bring them across [to] the other side of the table.
EM: It was easy to say in May, “No, we don’t want this,” because the Boston stations already had that season’s results. Will stations have more of a demand for ratings information during the November sweeps to come?
Ms. Whiting: We feel very comfortable that we have a good methodology in Boston, and we’re working on one with all the clients that we have, and that we had, in Boston to make them comfortable with that. But I don’t think I could predict what they will do.
EM: How about that other hot-button issue: Philadelphia. Has Nielsen seen enough to sign on to Arbitron’s Personal People Meters?
Ms. Whiting: When Arbitron approached us with the idea of the PPM, we looked at it as a very attractive option. … The idea was that we would help support the test they were doing in Philadelphia and it would be one option in that arsenal of tools that we have. … We’re in a very intense due diligence period with Arbitron in trying to understand research quality, technology, client issues, reporting issues … in order to see whether or not we would go ahead in a joint venture.
EM: The PPM is based on the audio signal. You get near enough to hear a TV and this pagerlike device will record the code in what you’re hearing. But if you’re away from the home, somewhere noisy, that’s a problem. And if you’re in a bar where you didn’t come to watch TV, the device is counting you as viewing. Do you find PPM to be a flawed technology?
Ms. Whiting: There’s a whole series of questions. One of the most basic for all of us, the buyers and sellers of television, is that the definition of viewing changes with something like PPM, because as you just suggested, as long as you’re exposed to the audio you’re counted as viewing. In the way that we … measure television there’s generally something more specific that someone does. They either record in a diary or they indicate that they’re viewing with a People Meter.
So the definition is different, and the numbers will be different, and the industry really needs to understand what that means for an advertiser.
Potentially you would be looking at radio measurement and television measurement from the same sample. So you just want to make sure that from a measurement point of view and a client point of view, you’ve understood the implications of cross-media measurement with the same sample.
One [other] issue might be the Arbitron PPM isn’t generally planned for children to carry around. Well, we measure television viewing by children. And for some TV programmers that’s important.
If the trade-off is I can get out-of-home measurement, which is something that’s also very important to television programmers, but I might have to give up something else. We need to understand that with our clients.
Compared to our ratings generally, broadcast television is higher in PPM, cable networks have even a larger increase and radio is fairly even, flat. Then, of course, there are differences network to network and station to station.
EM: Every time Nielsen makes a change in its methodology it angers some people and pleases others. Will you ever finish with this?
Ms. Whiting: If you’re asking, are we ever going to finish with the R&D, no, we will never finish with our research and development because the business keeps changing. On the other hand, our role is to provide a currency that’s stable and that has credibility and that people can believe in. So it’s a really fine dance, because you have to have something that everyone understands, to buy and sell with.
EM: Why isn’t Nielsen faster in responding to complaints from groups that think you’re not doing enough for them? In your umpire role, do you slow down some of these changes?
Ms. Whiting: No, we don’t slow them down. What does often slow implementation of changes down is that you don’t have agreement on the impact of those changes, so, for instance, if you decided that you wanted to change some basic method … we have to do the research, then we have to tell clients what we’re doing, and then they want to see the impact of that and a certain amount of history because it affects their buying and planning.
EM: Do you think personal video recorders will fundamentally change the nature of business?
Ms. Whiting: They have the potential to fundamentally change how people program television, but I can’t say that we know that now. We’re actually doing more research internally.
EM: Will the business change radically within five years?
Ms. Whiting: Within five years the business will have a lot of similarities to today. The average life of a [television] set, I think, is 11 years. If you think about some of this technology having to be deployed on all sets in all households … Whether it takes 10 years or three years, we have to be ready for it.