Fuzzy Math

Maybe Nielsen ought to call its new ratings device the "people eater." Nielsen Media Research's local people meters being tested in New York City are spooking some broadcasters, which are losing viewers in a big way.

"They should be shot," says one New York City general manager about the ratings giant. He complains that Nielsen, which is rolling out local people meters (LPMs) in the top 10 markets over the next two years, is "shoving this down our throats and charging us twice as much."

In Gotham, ratings for four of the six network-owned stations were down in February, according to the new Nielsen system that has been in place since last fall. WWOR and WPIX were down double digits. Those are the young-skewing UPN and WB outlets. WCBS and WNYW were down a tad less.

Ratings for individual shows during the test phase have shown striking differences. For the week of Feb. 16, the WCBS news at 6 p.m. was down 30% from the Station Index of the same period, but Late Night With David Letterman
on the same channel was up 12%. On WABC, both Good Morning America
and General Hospital
were down 4%, but World News Tonight
was up 17%. Seinfeld
on WNYW at 7:30 was down 12%.

Let's put an asterisk here: The numbers are based on household panel samples that aren't yet complete, so Nielsen may do some fine-tuning. The numbers are compared to the Nielsen Station Index, the measurement method being phased out.

In a nutshell, the current Nielsen Station Index uses a combination of diaries and an old-style people meter that records that the set is in use. The new local people meter eliminates the diary and requires viewers to identify themselves so Nielsen knows a show is being watched by a woman 25-54 or a man 18-24. That way, Nielsen can instantly calculate demographics.

But wherever the math is done, some results remain the same. As in Boston, where local people meter service began in 2002, younger-skewing shows and stations seem to be taking the biggest hit in the New York test.

The new system lets Nielsen better measure demographics. Since its inception, experts have predicted that implementing local meters would help cable and hurt broadcast.

"We are anticipating a wild ride for clients who target men and adults 18-34," says Janice Finkel Greene, executive vice president and director of local broadcast strategy at Initiative, the Interpublic Group of Companies ad agency.

Nielsen is set to make a final go/no-go decision this week about whether to launch the local people meter in New York and Los Angeles April 8.

"The initial experience in Boston was a nightmare," says Alan Wurtzel, president, research and media development, NBC. "It took a while for Nielsen to get things stabilized, but they did. And in New York and L.A., the rollout has been far more orderly."

While he'd prefer Nielsen embrace a technology that measures both in-home and out-of-home audiences—the latter critical for accurate measurement of younger viewers—the LPMs are an improvement over the existing diary/meter service, Wurtzel admits.

In Boston, general managers say, the numbers have stabilized but are still down across the board compared with rankings prior to the meters' installation. "There are still some issues of missing viewers," says Paul La Camera, president and general manager, WCVB, the ABC affiliate in Boston.

Early-morning news has taken a big hit across the market, and late news has been hurt, too. That's especially painful, because local newscasts are stations' bread and butter. But the ratings declines are also seen in shows and dayparts that target men.

Despite qualms, all the major networks and a slew of agencies, cable companies, and broadcasters have signed on to take the service. Just last week, Tribune Co., which owns WPIX, signed a long-term contract.

Since the data is better, many broadcasters believe the local people meters will spell the end of sweeps.

Buyers see an upside, too.

With daily ratings, they will press for ratings guarantees—in writing—like they get from the networks. "What we're hoping to get to is a real-time accountability with local people meters," says Finkel Greene. That would mean getting make-goods immediately "rather than after the fact."

And no one would mourn an end to sweeps. "It's really not smart to put all the best programming in three months of the year," says Andy Donchin, senior vice president and director of national broadcast, Carat. With a daily flow of ratings out of the major markets, where half the spot dollars are spent, affiliates and O&Os will require attractive programming year round. "That will force the programmers to think beyond the sweeps."

Intelligent viewers should like that. "During the February sweeps here," LaCamera notes, "there was not one news story about 'Salad Bars That Kill.'"