Nielsen's new tech banished in Boston

Barring a dramatic change, by Thursday all of Boston's broadcast stations will be putting their old Nielsen diaries in boxes and packing them up for shipment to the ratings company. The information in those books will be left to mildew.

As of late last week, no Boston broadcaster had signed up for Nielsen Media Research's highly touted Local People Meter (LPM) system, which has been testing in the No. 6 DMA and launches for real at the start of May sweeps.

Boston broadcasters have been skeptical from the start regarding the new system, complaining that the technology is unproven and discriminates against less tech-savvy older viewers. Oh yes, there's also this: LPMs would likely add an additional six figures in costs to stations. Then there's the fear, arising from the testing, that LPMs will document less overall broadcast viewing.

Despite the size and prominence of Boston station owners—including multi-station major-market powerhouses Viacom, Fox, Tribune and Hearst-Argyle—Nielsen intends to go ahead with its rollout. "This is the best way of measuring television audience today," said Nielsen spokesman Jack Loftus. "It is absolutely the best system on the planet." The dominant ratings company hopes to roll out its LPM in 10 other markets in the next three years.

Viacom group President Fred Reynolds remains unsatisfied. "None of the over-the-air customers are signing up. That's got to tell you something."

With Nielsen removing its set-tuning meters and diary system, Boston stations will be unable to use any Nielsen data in their sales or promotions. Access codes will be eliminated, along with past and present ratings books. Station salespeople will still have access to the ratings numbers through advertisers who will remain subscribers, but Nielsen expects no violations of the honor system.

"It will be as if Nielsen never existed," said Ed Goldman, who runs Viacom's Boston duopoly of CBS station WBZ-TV and UPN station WSBK-TV. "We'll be left to our own devices."

"Supply and demand will take over. Rates will be what the market will bear. April has been a transition month for business. After 18 months of difficult conditions, May and June are showing a great pressure on inventory."

Added WHDH-TV boss Mike Carson, "The buying community will know what the ratings are. ... We're not concerned at all. We price inventory on a supply-and-demand basis."

Phil Balboni, whose New England Cable News Network will subscribe—along with New England Sports Network and AT&T Broadband—said: "We began believing and still believe that the technology is better. The old-fashioned paper diary is, in a contemporary society with 150-200 channels, ludicrous," even though NECN's gains as measured through the LPM test period have been modest at best, and disappointing to the network.

Several Boston station execs have expressed a preference—or at least a strong curiosity—regarding Arbitron's experiment with Personal People Meters, currently under test in Philadelphia. Where Nielsen's Local People Meter calls on subjects to identify themselves via ID numbers when they're watching TV, the Arbitron personal people meter (PPM) automatically records what a subject is watching or listening to, in or out of the home, as long as the subject is wearing the device, which looks like a phone pager.

Arbitron says its PPM reported higher average quarter-hour audiences for television than did existing measurement methods. "These findings continue to suggest that Arbitron's new ratings technology is tracking media exposure that is not included in today's generation of TV and radio ratings methods," Arbitron said.

Nielsen has provided financial backing for the PPM trials and has an option to partner with Arbitron. Without an alliance, Arbitron says it can't afford the system.