Measure for Measure

The early-fall buzz surrounds ABC's Lost
and CBS's CSI: N.Y.
But buzz isn't science. For the first time, TV and ad execs are getting local demo ratings in major markets on broadcasters' new programs on a daily basis, courtesy of Nielsen's local people meters (LPMs).

LPMs, an electronic system that replaces the old handwritten "diary" system, are operating in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco—and yielding a treasure trove of data that bores into specific demos.

"To know who is watching and who isn't is a great feedback tool for programmers," says The WB Chairman Garth Ancier.

In New York, UPN's America's Next Top Model
and NBC's The Apprentice
kill in the 18-34 demo. Las Vegas
is popular with Bostonians 18-49. But the prize goes to ABC's Desperate Housewives, which scores big numbers with young viewers in all four markets.

With LPMs, data comes fast and furious. Media buyers can call their local station sales rep every morning to buy into a hot new show or collect on a make-good when a program is under-delivering. At ad-buying firm Initiative Media, a new computer system, the Initiative Overnight Alert System, tracks the overnights from new LPMs.

Nielsen plans to roll out LPMs in the remainder of the top 10 markets within two years. In those markets, they stand to make local sweeps irrelevant. Demo ratings are the currency for TV ad sales, but under the old diary system, detailed data was published only in ratings books after
sweeps. "Household ratings gave everyone a directional feel, but they were never really sure," says Rob Frydlewicz, vice president of research for Carat Insight.

"Before, we were guessing," says Janice Finkel Greene, executive vice president and associate director of local broadcast. "Now buyers get alerts on every buy and if they are delivering on the ratings."

So far this season, the LPM data mirrors national Nielsens. The three CSIs are hugely popular in all four markets, as are ABC's Lost
and NBC's The Apprentice. Upon closer examination, though, subtleties appear. On Sept. 27, for example, The WB's sophomore drama One Tree Hill
performed well with 18-34s in New York, Boston and Chicago; in Los Angeles, the demo preferred NBC's Father of the Pride
and Fox's Trading Spouses. In Chicago, NBC's hometown medical drama ER
is huge, beating the national average on 18-49s.

But the new technology also has its share of detractors.

Nielsen has been defending LPMs since introducing them in Boston in 2002. Fox, a vocal proponent, charges that they undercount minorities. Univision, also saying the system under-represents minorities, tried unsuccessfully in court to block the LPMs in Los Angeles. One overriding network concern: The LPMs could pinch ad-sales revenue for some local broadcasters, which have seen some ratings drop under the LPM measurements. Fox's New York and UPN stations and Univision affiliates are notable examples.

LPM data are difficult to compare with the old diary results because of differences in the methodology. For instance, certain Fox shows did better with diaries vs. LPMs. Under the new system, smaller cable networks, which Nielsen homes might have forgotten to jot down in the diary, are registering improved ratings. Conversely, broadcast networks and big cable channels may have been over-emphasized in some diaries. Today, they may post lower ratings in the electronic tally.

To allay concerns, Nielsen has opted to keep diaries running alongside LPMs for test periods. In San Francisco, both are in use until year's end. But not every market will need to adjust. Outside of the top 10 or 20 markets, it may be too expensive for Nielsen to deploy the technology and for cable operators, stations and media buyers to purchase the pricey, à la carte data. Most of the country's 210 markets will stick with the old diary system.

In smaller markets, clients can see immediately what advertising works. Says Initiative's Finkel Greene. "They know what is driving traffic into local shoe stores."

With time, researchers say, LPM-generated ratings will stabilize. That's what happened when Nielsen converted to a people meter in its national sample in 1987.

This season, at least in the five LPM markets, advertisers know for certain who is watching. Says Finkel Greene, "For better or worse, we have our overnight data. We're not waiting for months to find out what we've won."

In fact, most research and sales execs say the LPMs are an improvement in local measurement. "The sample is better now, the Hispanic sample is better, and the technology is better," says MediaCom CEO Jon Mandel. "The salespeople at Fox don't like the fact they actually have to sell now."