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Meter Makes Boston Inroads

CBS and Hearst-Argyle Television are reportedly in talks about making the switch to Nielsen Media Research's Local People Meters for their duopolies in the Boston market, which would break the impasse the ratings company has experienced in getting its new headcounter used in Beantown.

CBS owns WBZ-TV and UPN affiliate WSBK-TV. Hearst-Argyle owns ABC affiliates WCVB-TV Boston and WMUR-TV Manchester, N.H., which serves the Boston market.

A year ago, Nielsen indicated that it intended to install People Meters in all of the top 10 markets within four years, but that was before it had trouble getting it done in just one city, where the major stations have resisted since Nielsen began offering the service last April. Nielsen has not disclosed its next target, but sources say it is to be Los Angeles.

Sources indicate that CBS's Boston talks are going on at the same time the CBS network is renegotiating its contract. In addition, parent company Viacom is conducting parallel talks about a corporate-wide ratings-service deal with Nielsen.

CBS declined to comment specifically on the negotiations, other than to confirm that talks are occurring.

Viacom declined to comment, but a source indicated that talks have progressed regarding Boston People Meters and odds are good a deal will get done sooner rather than later. One proponent of doing a deal, sources say, is Dennis Swanson, who joined as day-to-day head of the station group earlier this year.

If the CBS Boston deal does happen, it would serve as a template for Local People Meter (LPM) service in other markets. At the same time, both sides stressed that the deal has not been signed and a number of issues that could be deal-breakers still have to be resolved.

Hearst-Argyle also declined to comment, but a source with knowledge of the Boston situation said company executives have been pleased with the way Nielsen has responded to many of concerns about its LPM methodology.

"I wouldn't characterize it as 'close,'" said the source, referring to the Hearst-Argyle–Nielsen talks on Boston. But an agreement is likely at some point.

Like Viacom, Disney and NBC are engaged in talks about comprehensive ratings-service packages.

So far, only two Boston-area stations—Spanish-language WUNI(TV) Worcester, Mass., and independent WNDS(TV) Derry, N.H.—have bought into Nielsen's LPM. So have several ad agencies, the New England Sports Network and New England Cable News, and public station WGBH-TV Boston.

Initially, all the big stations in the Boston market strongly resisted Nielsen's effort to switch to people meters. For one thing, switching will mean fee increases, station execs say.

And the ratings generated by the LPM tend to be lower in certain dayparts and demographics than those generated by the current methodology, which combines household meters with diaries that survey the demos.

But until the stations strike deals with Nielsen, they don't have ratings to sell off of in Boston.

Some stations and groups still have big problems with Nielsen's LPM concept. "It's a flawed system," says Pat Mullen, president of Tribune Television, which also has a station in the Boston market. "They ought to be creating a system that's passive and measures both out-of-home and in-home viewing."

Nielsen is exploring future applications of those methodologies through an agreement with Arbitron, which is experimenting with its Portable People Meter in Philadelphia. But any deal to adopt PPM techniques through a venture with Arbitron is a long way off.

Mullen declined to comment on whether Tribune is even talking to Nielsen about Boston People Meter service.

Station sales executives say that, while the Boston People Meters report lower ratings than in the past, some but not all advertisers have been willing to pay higher rates to make up the difference. "It's supply and demand," said a local advertising agency executive. "We haven't seen stations willing to take less for their inventory," which was further tightened this year by political advertising.

And, while viewership still appears lower after the November sweeps, it appears that both the CBS network and the CBS station did well in the market. In recent years, WBZ-TV has been among CBS's top performers among its largest markets in local newscasts and did particularly well in the revenue-critical late-news time period last month, sources say. Without subscribing to Nielsen's service, though, the station cannot use those numbers in sales efforts.

Local advertisers say—and local station executives recognize—that the absence of Nielsen numbers makes their relationship more difficult. "They're not happy," said an executive with a station that has been among the holdouts, "that we're not providing the same level of service."

Executives at two holdouts, though, insist that their revenues in Boston haven't been hurt by the lack of ratings.

Additional reporting by Dan Trigoboff