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How Canada Counts Its Viewers

TV markets around the world are undergoing the most rapid technological changes in decades. Digital video recorders, recordable DVD players, HDTV receivers and TVs, cellphone TVs, flat plasma and LCD TVs have served to strain traditional measurement techniques.

Those tasked with providing reliable audience measurement face unprecedented challenges. BBM, the research firm that measures radio and television audiences in Canada, has spent years researching solutions for the changing media environment.

As the company's former VP of research, I have direct experience with three distinct approaches for measuring television demographics that I'd like to share.

The pushbutton, set-top people meter has been the gold standard for electronic measurement of TV demographics, but, for economic reasons, the diary method is also widely used.

BBM has used both these methodologies and one more—the Arbitron Portable People Meter (PPM). Since September 2004, Québec TV audiences have been measured passively by the Arbitron PPM.

The transition from diary to meters for measuring TV demographics led to differences in ratings results: lower peak-time audiences, higher off-peak audiences, lower shares for major channels and larger shares for minor channels.

These changes required a period of adjustment in buying and selling airtime.

Nevertheless, there remained little doubt that electronic measurement panels were superior to diary-based methods.

The next transition for TV measurement in Canada, from pushbutton meters to passive measurement using passive people meters (PPMs), has also required some adjustment. PPMs reported consistently higher audience numbers than pushbutton people meters—about 8% higher overall.

Why the differences?

BBM researchers found that the major source of lower audience numbers was that viewers didn't fully cooperate in the button-pushing meter system. That is, the second, third and fourth household members who began watching TV didn't push the button registering their presence.

When people won't do what you ask them to do, the best solution is to quit asking and do it for them.

One solution is a more passive measurement approach, such as the Arbitron PPM. Any change in the media currency is disruptive and must be introduced carefully.

PPM was successfully introduced in Canada, thanks to a comprehensive series of tests and comparisons that allowed the television industry to have a maximum understanding of the impact of a change to passive measurement.

A change in the definition of viewing or tuning is not something that is done simply because a new technology exists. The change takes place because it is a response to the changing needs of the market.

We believe the solution is to let the PPM decide on an individual's media exposure.