Dear diary: Increasing sample size

Feb 24, 2003  •  Post A Comment

Nielsen Media Research is expected to announce, perhaps as early as this week, a new plan that will lead to the end of the diary system for measuring ratings in the top television markets, replacing the much maligned practice of having viewers with set-top meters fill out diaries.
Nielsen is not yet ready to announce details of the rollout, but it is expected to follow the Boston model, in which both Local People Meters and diaries are employed during a transitional period. Susan Whiting, president and CEO of Nielsen Media Research, declined to comment or to specify which networks would initially participate. “We’re in the middle of trying to inform a number of different clients at the same time of what the steps are,” Ms. Whiting said. “So it would be really unfair to disclose that now without talking to them first.”
Ms. Whiting added that it was “feasible” to replace diaries in the top 10 markets over the next three to four years and that the time frame for doubling the Nielsen People Meter sample was “two to four” years. But the “plan to have People Meters in the top 10 markets and to expand our national sample is not a new plan,” Ms. Whiting said. “What we’ve been working on, what’s so significant … about NBC and other clients is that they’re all saying that they want to support the expansion of People Meters.”
The change is part of a long-sought improvement in the way Nielsen measures how many people are viewing a given TV show. In recent years, the ratings giant has been criticized for everything from undercounting viewers in bars and other public venues such as airports to failing to fully recognize minority viewers, especially the mushrooming Hispanic population in the United States.
The new system is expected to include twice as large a sample. Although Nielsen would not confirm other participants, the new system is said to already have the backing of Disney’s ABC, News Corp.’s Fox and the Turner networks.
The latest to sign on for the new expanded sampling, which will come with a higher price tag, is General Electric’s NBC. Nielsen Media Research and NBC last week announced a seven-year agreement for audience measurement services covering all of NBC’s national and local television businesses, including the NBC Television Network, cable networks Bravo, CNBC and MSNBC, Telemundo, the 14 NBC owned-and-operated television stations and the 13 Telemundo television stations.
As part of the deal, NBC has agreed to support the expansion of Nielsen’s National People Meter sample. When all elements of the expansion plan are complete, the effective size of the National People Meter sample will grow from 5,100 households, consisting of approximately 13,000 persons, to nearly 10,000 homes, consisting of approximately 23,000 persons.
Ms. Whiting did say that the NPM sample expansion would be achieved partly by “incorporating homes from the Local People Meter markets.”
Asked if that meant the diary system would “go away,” she replied, “We’ve said that we had a plan to put Local People Meters in the top markets, the top 10, so when you think about Boston, we’ve done that. We use People Meters in Boston.”
A feature of the Boston experience was, however, tough opposition from local broadcast stations, which stopped subscribing to the ratings service when Nielsen started implementing LPMs. One reason for that opposition: LPMs mean relative rating declines for traditional broadcasters vis-a-vis younger-skewing cable networks and others.
But after months of boycott, solid Boston major broadcast-station opposition to LPMs cracked recently, with the announcement that Hearst-Argyle-owned WCVB-TV concluded a new contract with Nielsen to receive the LPM service.
Networks generally own stations in the major markets and that is the reason not all networks will be on board for the transition to LPMs. CBS is, for one, understood not be participating at this stage. A CBS spokesman declined to comment on the network’s discussions with Nielsen.
Another area of ratings-measurement expansion that Nielsen contemplates and which NBC favors is into the underserved out-of-home arena. As a first step, Nielsen is discussing with a number of large clients a proposal for extended home measurement, Ms. Whiting said. “The idea there would be to basically look at viewing in second homes or college residences for people who are already in our national sample.” A first test of EHM is also imminent.
The NBC-Nielsen deal, which follows an earlier three-year deal between the Peacock Network and TV’s perennial ratings referee, is worth “hundreds and hundreds of millions” of dollars, according to Alan Wurtzel, president, research and media development for NBC.
Neither Mr. Wurtzel nor Ms. Whiting would further specify how much the deal is worth, nor how great the savings are of an overall companywide deal compared with individual, a la carte deals for each NBC network and station group, though Mr. Wurtzel characterized the savings for his company as substantial.
The deal is the “largest, most comprehensive agreement of its kind in the history of media research,” according to a statement from the two companies, though Ms. Whiting did note that it is not the first seven-year overall deal between Nielsen and a media conglomerate. AOL Time Warner and Nielsen are now in the fourth year of a similar seven-year deal that covers The WB, HBO and all the Turner cable networks, she said.
Mr. Wurtzel expressed the hope that eventually that NPM sample will include Hispanics, who now are monitored in a separate panel. “At this point, we haven’t addressed that issue,” Ms. Whiting said, adding that “eventually we all want to do that.”
What turns the Nielsen set-top meter into a People Meter is the keypad attachment that permits individuals in a Nielsen household to identify themselves to the meter when they are viewing television, adding the specifics of sex-and-age demographics to the household viewing data collected by the meter. Without the keypad, Nielsen must rely on the diary to supplement its metered-household data.
-With contributions by Alex Ben Block