TV Newsrooms Regrouping for People Meters

Feb 16, 2004  •  Post A Comment

Sweeps have traditionally been that time of year when local television stations haul out the sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll special reports and the fancy graphics to promote them. It’s understandable: During sweeps, people receive and fill out the Nielsen diaries that generate demographic information on viewers, which forms the basis for advertising rates.
“You turn on the TV and you start seeing the promos for the `killer salad bars,’ you know it must be a sweeps week,” said Steve Paulus, senior VP and general manager of NY1, Time Warner’s cable news operation in New York.
That’s the way it has been done in most markets for years. For the largest TV designated market areas, though, it’s about to change. The arrival of Nielsen’s local People Meters (LPMs) during the next few years could radically alter the way local news is programmed and promoted.
After a two-year warmup in Boston, Nielsen will rapidly expand the deployment of LPMs in the biggest markets this year. Los Angeles will go online in March, followed by New York in April. By 2006, the 10 largest television markets will be using the high-tech devices that are supposed to do away with the diary-based system television executives love to hate.
With LPMs collecting demographic information almost continuously, stations will no longer need to pull out all the stops four times a year to spike their ratings.
What’s a news department to do?
“I think this will be a wonderful thing,” said Forrest Carr, news director, WFLA-TV in Tampa, Fla., a Media General-owned NBC affiliate. “We would actually have to tell people that we do a good job of covering the news every single day. Imagine that.”
The radio industry dealt with a similar issue nearly 20 years ago, when ratings powerhouse Arbitron decided to expand its audience measurement to 48 weeks per year in the top 75 markets. Managers wailed about the expense of having to spread promotional budgets over a full year instead of cramming big dollars into spring and fall ratings windows. With everyone facing the same challenge, however, radio adapted.
Television stations may soon be forced to make the same adjustments and suffer the same initial discomfort during the transition.
“This methodology is very different than what we have had, and it’s a concern,” said Paula Madison, president and general manager at NBC owned-and-operated station KNBC-TV, Los Angeles, and a former news director.
Privately, many news directors and station managers say they welcome the move, though it threatens to shake up stations’ standard operating procedures.
“There is a different way of running a television station in a metered market than in a nonmetered market,” said Joe Goleniowski, general manager, Media General-owned CBS affiliate WKRG-TV, Mobile, Ala.
Not that Mobile managers will have to worry about LPMs-not for a while, at least.
Expensive Devices
“I don’t imagine that we will be able to get the People Meters into every local market, simply because there is not enough advertising revenue in some of those markets to make it worth their while,” said Nielsen spokeswoman Karen Gyimesi.
Meters are expensive to install and maintain. Nielsen plans to replace metered homes every two years, so the company must recruit new households continuously.
For the biggest markets, LPMs may offer a solid long-term advantage, even if stations don’t want to admit it.
Graeme Newell, a consultant with 602 Communications in Charlotte, N.C., said stations frequently shoot themselves in the foot by promising things like “live, local, late-breaking” news coverage most of the year, then delivering soft, fluffy features during sweeps.
“I see so many stations with a `sweeps mentality’ that completely sabotages their overall brand image,” said Mr. Newell, whose clients include stations owned by Hearst-Argyle, ABC and Tribune Co.
Mr. Newell cautioned against the overuse of special reports that are planned weeks or months in advance so that the station’s promotion department can make the appropriate media buys.
“Invariably, those turn out to be something soft, something that has very little to do with timely news,” he said.
Favoring Cable?
Broadcasters may have a sound reason to dislike People Meters. Critics of the current system contend that diaries favor highly promoted stations that spend heavily to build top-of-mind awareness. They argue that People Meters are far more accurate than diaries at recording short-term viewing, especially of cable channels.
“People might turn to us for five minutes at a time to catch up on news or weather, and a week later, when they are trying to fill out the diaries, they are not going to remember that. I think the meters are really going to help us,” NY1’s Mr. Paulus said.
Indeed, executives at New England Cable News credited Boston’s use of LPMs with boosting the news channel’s sales by 15 percent the first year the devices were installed. Local stations also spent less to promote their sweeps-timed news stories.
“I think you’re going to see this whole promotional effort turning into more of a 24-7, 12-month a year campaign,” Mr. Paulus said.
And sweeps stunts, Mr. Newell added, may soon become a thing of the past.
“As these things spread, stations will not have to put so much time into stunting,” he said. “They can pay attention to covering the news every single day.”