Nielsen Will Swell People Meter Sample

Nielsen Media Research wants to increase the size of its national People Meter ratings sample over the next three years, and those plans have left clients wondering how big their rate increases will be.

The ratings company has told subscribers it could as much as double the 5,100 households that presently take part in its national People Meter demographic ratings reports.

Nielsen may increase the number of homes in its national sample by 2,000 and bring local metering to a total of 10 key markets, with 400 to 800 meters in each DMA, said senior vice president and spokesman Jack Loftus.

The research giant's goal is to get national and local clients to share in the cost of the upgraded People Meter samples, said Lifetime Television senior vice president of research Tim Brooks. Nielsen has kept the two samples separate until now.

"Nielsen clearly needs larger samples in this increasingly fragmented world and 5,000 homes isn't enough, so it's planning to integrate the two samples to create efficiencies," Brooks said.

Nielsen has long been looking to supplement its national People Meter sample in a cost-effective way, said Discovery Networks U.S. senior vice president of research Steve McGowan. He said the research firm might eventually "weight its local data and fold [it] into the national ratings data."

Nielsen's 10-market expansion will be an expensive proposition, McGowan said, though the ratings service has yet to name its price.

"Like everything, it's going to boil down to costs and what the market will bear," he said, adding Nielsen might want to wait for an ad-sales turnaround.

Brooks predicted that Nielsen will face "tough negotiations," and not because of the sluggish economy. Broadcast-station groups are reluctant to spend heavily on research "even in the best of times," he said.

It was that lack of support that drove Arbitron Inc. out of the TV-ratings business several years ago, Brooks recalled. Given that background — and broadcasters' present lack of support for People Meter efforts in Boston — "Nielsen needs to be reasonable in its pricing," he said.

Nielsen may disclose a new rate structure that would reflect the costs of expanding the national sample by 2,000 homes "in a month or so," said Loftus. Local-market rates won't be set until afterwards, he said.

The rest of the 3,000 new People Meter homes would be spread across the 10 local markets.

Nielsen has not yet named the nine DMAs it will add, but at a meeting with the Association of National Advertisers two weeks ago the ratings company said New York, Los Angeles and Chicago are likely candidates, according to attendees.

Most of those new markets will be among the top-10 DMAs, McGowan speculated.

People Meter ratings are more expensive because of the quick turnover in sample households, said McGowan.

Though the passive set-tuning meter sample lasts five years, the new meters require participants to enter data on every viewer for each program they watch. As a result, "Nielsen burns through its People Meter sample much faster – about two years," McGowan said.

The Boston People Meter test has resulted in downbeat ratings reports for both broadcast and cable since May. Nonetheless, Nielsen has booked its second local subscriber – New England Cable News.

NECN president Phil Balboni said his regional network signed a six-year local People Meter contract. (AT&T Broadband signed on last April, without indicating the length of its agreement.)

Homes using television (HUT) levels in Boston-area home with People Meters have been lower than those in homes equipped with the set-tuning meter, a Nielsen spokeswoman said. But that trend is consistent with the 1987 transfer of the national sample from set meters to People Meters, she said.

Some persons using television (PUT) levels are up in the Boston test —notably among total men (up 10.5 percent), children (up 23.4 percent) and teens (up 30.5 percent).