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Local People Meters, Headed for More Cities, Have Changed the Game in Boston

Advertisers trying to get a better handle on tough-to-measure local cable viewing are keeping one eye on Boston, the first market to use Nielsen's local people meter. The ratings service plans to expand LPM service to New York, Los Angeles and Chicago next year and will add more cities the following year.

With only one working LPM market, researchers say it's too early to begin drawing conclusions about how the service will ultimately affect media-buying patterns. Boston is too homogenous a market to represent ethnic demographic trends, for instance, and a disproportionate number of tourists and students challenge viewing-habit sampling, particularly of younger viewers, who tend to gather in different spots to watch.

However, certain improvements have already made their mark on how viewing is evaluated. For instance, the meters, which ask individual household members to log in before watching a program, have eliminated the phenomenon of "zero cells," which occur when passive meters and diary demographic data conflict. When that happens, Nielsen applies a mathematical formula to estimate viewership.

"Household boxes, which offer no demographic information, differ from diary households, so it's a big issue when they don't match up," said Janice Finkel Green, executive vice president and director of local broadcast strategy at Initiative. "With LPMs, there are no zero cells."

Another effect has been that sweeps periods have lost their relevance because the market can now judge demographics nightly, weekly and monthly. This has greatly reduced the stunting that goes on among local broadcasters, according to Paul LaCamera, general manager of Boston's ABC affiliate WCVB(TV). "It's a much more healthy and rational way to run a TV station." WCVBhas held onto the top spot in early morning, evening news and late fringe despite the switch to LPM.

The other emerging story lies in the LPM's ability to improve measurement of local cable ratings. Operators have experienced a 23% increase in measured viewing since the introduction of LPMs, according to Nielsen estimates. Cable is experiencing significant upticks among specific groups like teens and males 18-24 drawn to niche-oriented sports and music networks, according to Kim Norris, divisional vice president, Northeast, of Comcast, the largest operator in Boston.

Quarter-to-quarter revenue growth has been as robust as 40% in certain areas and dayparts, Norris said. "We knew viewership patterns were changing, and now we can actually quantify it. We're able to sell wider and deeper as a result, packaging more cable networks together than we ever have before."

Although ratings have slipped for some broadcast programs, that doesn't mean revenues have gone down as well. "Supply and demand drives the price of programming, not ratings delivery," said Karen Agresti, senior vice president and director of local broadcast for Boston-based Hill Holiday Advertising. "Even though ratings have dropped, prices don't, but they do level out. In the long run, costs-per-point go up to adjust to the new system, and ad-planning groups change the way they plan accordingly."