The People-Meter Effect

While most stations must wait until mid March to learn the results of February sweeps, broadcasters in two of the country’s top markets are receiving instant report cards. This month marks the first major rating period since Detroit and Dallas-Ft. Worth converted to Nielsen Media Research’s electronic ratings system, the local people meter (LPM). The system reports demographic ratings daily, freeing local broadcasters from the agony of waiting weeks to process the diary data.

But LPM information can be difficult to digest. Any change in ratings can be jarring, and the LPMs produce reams of data on every demographic slice, so the volume can be difficult for station staffers and media buyers to manage. Everyone must fight the urge to react to one night’s data.

“You can drive yourself nuts over the deluge of information,” says Steve Wasserman, general manager of WDIV, the NBC affiliate in Detroit. “You have to look at long-term performance and trends.”

Nielsen converted Detroit and Dallas-Ft. Worth in January, and in both markets, early results show increases in overall viewing. But in some time periods, marks are down. Last month, all three late newscasts in Detroit reported ratings several points lower in the key 25-54 news demo than in January 2005, when the diaries were still in use. News ratings have also dipped slightly for most Dallas-Ft. Worth newscasts.

So far, though, LPM ratings have not changed any station’s position in its market, managers note. Detroit’s WDIV continues to be top-rated in late news, while NBC-owned KXAS still prevails in Dallas-Ft. Worth.

The cities are the eighth and ninth top-10 markets to adopt LPMs; Atlanta is slated to switch in July. Nielsen does not currently have plans to convert more markets, leaving about 200 markets on the diary system.

Controversy has followed the people meters. Since they were introduced in Boston in 2002, station managers have griped about lower ratings among young viewers and minorities, as well as increases in fault rates (viewers not responding). Last summer, amid protests by station owners, Nielsen delayed launches in Washington and Philadelphia for a month. At the time, Nielsen said the delay allowed both sides more time to study the new technology, but it was clearly an acknowledgement of customers’ frustrations.

Nielsen instituted a transition period in its two newest LPM markets. In November sweeps, for example, it collected data from both the old set-top/diary system and LPMs. Comparing the data, Nielsen says the LPM benefited broadcasters, with increased viewing in every daypart except prime, which saw slight decreases.

Some of the November results might allay stations’ concerns over losing younger eyeballs.

In Detroit, for example, the LPMs showed viewers 18-34 consuming significantly more TV in daytime, late news and late fringe, compared with the former system.

Dallas-Ft. Worth stations logged similar spikes in early fringe and late night.

Since January, the LPMs have been the only ratings in those newer markets. So far, station managers there are not griping as much as in other markets. Being two of the later LPM regions, executives say, has given them time to study the impact in other electronic markets.

Even without diaries, sweeps remains in effect. With LPMs, the argument goes, stations can sell on year-round data, making sweeps less significant.

But, as usual, to capitalize on networks’ and syndicators’ specials, broadcasters in both Detroit and Dallas-Ft. Worth are loading up on flashy promos and investigative pieces.

At CBS owned-KTVT Dallas-Ft. Worth, General Manager Steve Mauldin says his station is spreading its promotional efforts, such as billboards, throughout the year, but admits the local news still keys in on November, February and May.

The focus will eventually change, he says: “The networks will still have the sweeps mentality, but [LPMs] are going to change the way we do business.”