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Cleveland Rocked by People Meters

It's safe to say that since Nielsen's Local People Meters (LPM) rating system went live in Cleveland on Aug. 28, the stations there haven't exactly greeted it with open arms.

Stations are dealing with a double whammy familiar to markets with LPMs: lower ratings and increased fees. And the reported double-digit percentage price hikes are pushing the cost for some to over $1 million a year per station. “I can understand why people balk,” says Frank N. Magid Senior VP Bill Hague. “[The LPMs] show less people are watching, yet they're asked to pay more.”

With Nielsen's LPMs, each member of a participating household pushes a button to activate an electronic meter when they're watching TV, instead of a participant filling out a paper diary. While managers say it's too early to have a clear read on LPMs, there's underlying anxiety around stations in the No. 17 DMA. “We'll diligently try to sort through it,” says WEWS VP/General Manager Viki Regan, “but I can't say I'm totally comfortable at this point.”

WKYC, which did not return calls for comment, was much more strident in an Aug. 28 letter to Nielsen expressing the Gannett station's “deep concerns about the reliability of the Cleveland LPM sample,” specifically regarding “demographic representation of the sample, disproportionate fault rates in key demographics [and] many instances of non-reported viewing.” The missive also notes that the Media Rating Council, the industry-funded ratings review service, “has refused to accredit the Cleveland sample.”

A Nielsen spokesperson says Cleveland's LPM rollout, which coincided with another in Minneapolis, has gone as planned: “There's nothing unusual in the way we rolled Cleveland out. It's the same way we've done it in other markets.”

On its Website, WKYC added that the new ratings system will turn local television “upside down.” “What this means to us is a new way of measuring viewers of our local television programs in a way that Nielsen says will offer a truer representation of actual viewing audiences. Not all stations are convinced this will be better,” reads WKYC director Frank Macek's blog posting from Aug. 28. “As we begin this new journey...we'll share with you more about Local People Meters and how these numbers differ from Nielsen's diary surveys of the past.”

Raycom, meanwhile, is pushing Nielsen to rethink a big rate increase for its WOIO/WUAB duopoly. The stations are in the midst of a 30-day extension from Nielsen as Raycom attempts to renegotiate. Raycom VP of Research Bill McDowell believes a cost spike doesn't jibe with the downbeat state of the television economy, but Nielsen's spokesperson says the increase covers a larger sample group and more reliable numbers.

For the young-skewing WOIO and WUAB, however, it's not so much a question of the LPMs revealing decreased ratings. The new measurement tends to benefit stations with young viewers, who are less tenacious in filling out the paper diaries.

Nielsen aims to convert all 56 of its metered markets to LPMs by the end of 2011; next up are Miami and Denver in October. In a statement last year, Nielsen executive VP Susan Whiting said “…converting markets to our electronic Local People Meters will significantly improve the quality of our local measurement...We are also committed to working closely with the clients and stakeholders in every market to make the transition as smooth as possible.”

Cleveland stations are not the first to take issue with LPMs. When LPMs debuted in 2004, the Don't Count Us Out coalition protested what it deemed an under-representation of minorities. News Corp. chairman Rupert Murdoch blasted Whiting at a media conference, and activist Al Sharpton fronted a noisy protest outside Nielsen headquarters. More recently, Seattle television was hit with an “upheaval,” according to one station manager, when the LPMs kicked off there (see Market Eye, p. 12).

WJW Cleveland VP/General Manager Greg Easterly agrees that it's early in the process, but believes Local TV's Fox affiliate will retain its leading position. “Yes, it's more expensive, but our goal is to maintain our place in the marketplace,” he says. “We feel like we're in good shape.”