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Get ready for local peoplemeters

Some $27 billion in local TV advertising in the top 25 markets could be affected if Nielsen Media Research has its way and the top 25 markets are switched to local peoplemeters by 2010.

That was the message delivered last week by Adrienne Lotoski, research director at WCVB-TV Boston-where Nielsen is beginning a test of local peoplemeters-at the Television Advertising Bureau's annual research conference in New York.

Local-market broadcast ratings are likely to drop. Even Nielsen Media Research Senior Vice President Kenneth Wollenberg said the odds on that are pretty good, if the national peoplemeter experience is any indication.

And cable ratings would likely go up, which no doubt explains AT & T's interest and financial support in getting the Boston trial under way.

"This will be a real sea change," Lotoski told her audience. Among the questions stations have to grapple with is how to retain share of ad dollars if there is a sudden drop in ratings due to the methodology change.

Not just stations would be affected, she said. Advertisers, ad agencies, networks, syndicators, rep firms, cable channels and third-party Nielsen-data processors all have a stake.

And then there's the issue of the massive increase in demographic data flowing from the new meters daily. Currently, demographic information for local stations comes only during the 16 weeks of "sweeps" periods.

In effect, the whole year would be one big, competitive sweep, which in turn would have implications for the way the broadcast networks program. Currently, they tend to load up on big events and blockbuster movie titles and other assorted stunts during sweeps periods. "Are the networks prepared to air blockbuster films in April or August?," when repeats are currently the norm, Lotoski asked.

Another critical issue is how data will be credited under the new system. National peoplemeters record average-minute viewing, while local meters up to now have credited average quarter-hour viewing. But, over time, Nielsen wants to shift to average-minute data on the local level. The test in Boston is just getting under way. Nielsen hopes to have 420 peoplemeters installed by April, with the first demographic reports beginning shortly thereafter. By July, the peoplemeter sample base will be up to 600 homes. What's being called "demonstration" service would start in October 2001. At that point, Nielsen would run two parallel services: the current meter/diary system and the peoplemeter system.

During the demonstration period, data from the peoplemeter service would be used only for comparison, and Nielsen would ban its use for the actual selling or buying of advertising. How long the demonstration period would last is unclear. Wollenberg said some clients-presumably on the buying side-say two weeks would be sufficient. But Lotoski says she and others in the market want at least a 12-month demonstration period so that a full year of data is available to ascertain trends.

After the demonstration period, the current meter/diary system would end, Wollenberg noted.

To complicate matters, another technology-Arbitron's "pocket peoplemeter," or PPM-is being tested simultaneously. The company is gearing up for a trial in the Wilmington, Del., area that will gradually expand to the entire Philadelphia market by 2002. The PPM is a pager-like device that users wear all day to record all TV, cable and radio usage inside and outside the home. Nielsen has signed an agreement with Arbitron, giving it the right to examine the data from the test and also to help Arbitron analyze the TV portion of the data.

The beauty of the PPM technology, says Robert Patchen, an Arbitron research vice president, is that it is largely passive. There are no buttons to push every time a viewer sits down to watch TV.