Agencies Speak Off Record on LPM

Apr 19, 2004  •  Post A Comment

During the weeks leading up to Nielsen’s decision to delay the rollout of Local People Meters as the official TV ratings system for the New York market, broadcast TV executives, minority group organizers and advocacy groups and some of the most influential political leaders made their views known.
But Madison Avenue-which will depend on People Meters for placing more than $1 billion in local TV advertising buys in the market-was strangely silent during the political struggle that ultimately pressured Nielsen to postpone the local New York People Meters to June 3 from April 8.
While agency executives have long been public in their support of the move to People Meters, many say the New York debate became too politically charged for them to step in, especially after some pressure groups began making more of an issue about the representation of Hispanic and African Americans than about the best research methodology.
Off the record, Madison Avenue insiders said that the former was a nonissue, and if anything, the People Meter sample was more representative of minority groups than the existing set-meter/diary system.
“If the political people had talked to any one of the agency people, they would have heard that this is a step forward, not a step backward. Is it perfect? No. But it’s better and we like better,” said the top research executive of one of the top media buying shops, who asked to remain anonymous. “We’d love some issues to come to the head, but the race issue is not one of them. It’s just not something we want to be out in front of.”
The executive went on to point out that the Media Rating Council was already conducting an audit of Nielsen’s New York People Meter system, and that if there were any problems with its representation, it would have been made clear by that.
“The MRC will pore over this with a fine-toothed comb. It should be the last word on the subject,” the executive said.
Ironically, the MRC issued a rare public statement about the advocacy marketing campaign that was lodged against Nielsen, particularly a direct-mail campaign targeted at minority households in the New York area.
The MRC statement, which was followed by a similar statement from the National Association of Broadcasters, asserted that such efforts could actually corrupt the process they were seeking to fix to improve the representation of Hispanics and African Americans.
Nielsen executives have argued that the direct-mail effort constitutes sample tampering and that they are exploring legal action. Jonathan Sims, VP of research at Comcast Spotlight, said the company is also watching the situation closely and said the local cable sales organization would take whatever steps necessary to protect its business interests.
Ironically, the delay of the New York People Meters will hurt the representation of minorities in yet another way. Nielsen plans to use the rollout of Local People Meters in the major markets to expand its national TV ratings sample from 5,500 currently to an effective sample of 10,000 in 2006.
The expansion of the national sample will increase the representation of both Hispanics and African Americans in the national People Meter sample, enabling Spanish-language networks to be measured in the same sample alongside Anglo networks and boosting the sample size of African Americans enough to enable media planners to create extremely discrete demographic analyses for even relatively low-rated shows viewed by blacks.
“It’s a double whammy,” said another agency researcher. “It’s not only about New York. It’s now going to affect the rollout of NTI, which we were looking forward to being completed by the end of 2006. The bottom line is that anything that delays a substantially proven and better measurement is a great tragedy.”
To date, Nielsen has maintained that the New York People Meter delay, assuming it isn’t extended beyond June 3, won’t appreciably impact the expansion of its national TV ratings sample. Don’t Count Us Out, the advocacy group that has been targeting the New York People Meters, continues to run advertising to generate awareness of the issue.
In an effort to counterbalance those attacks, Nielsen is readying its own campaign with ads planned for the major minority newspapers in the New York region.
But while the advocacy group and Nielsen continue to battle over the New York People Meters, the issues are not so black and white within advertising agencies.
While the media research groups are unanimously in favor of the Local People Meter rollout, local TV buying groups are a bit more torn, for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that the meters will create more work for local TV buyers, who are already struggling with workload issues.
For the moment planners seem to be caught somewhere between the researchers on the one end and the buying groups on the other. The research groups are charged with evaluating the validity of research and setting policy for how it is used by others in the agency, including planners and buyers. But buyers say that despite the endorsement of their research teams, they are contractually obligated to continue using diary-based demographic ratings data until Nielsen officially makes the switch.
“For us, at the moment, everything remains business as usual,” said Phyllis Maguire, executive VP, managing director, and head of the local TV buying operations at media agency MPG. “We have no choice in the matter, because we are contractually committed to use the official ratings data.”
As messy as that might seem, Ms. Maguire said it is further complicated by the fact that some of the buys agencies are negotiating in April and May will have to be posted off of the diary data on which they were negotiated, even if portions of those buys extend past June 3 when People Meters become the official ratings system. “For a while, we will be working with two sets of books,” she noted.
Beyond that, she said, People Meters will create more work for local TV buying groups on an ongoing basis, because instead of creating posts and cost-per-point analyses based on quarterly Nielsen sweeps data, local buying groups will have to do it on a monthly basis.
Agency researchers don’t agree. “We all know that People Meters are better than diaries. We’ve been using People Meters nationally for 15 years and we’ve been relying on an inferior method for spot for the past 15 years,” said Rob Frydlewicz, VP of research at Carat Insight, the research division of media agency Carat. “We know that nirvana is within our reach. It’s only two months away in New York.”