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Power Outages Hit Nielsen Hard

The power blackout will soon reach one week for as many as 200,000 Connecticut customers, and a storm-related Nielsen blackout has been going on just as long. With so many Nielsen homes out of commission due to power failures, local ratings in Hartford-New Haven and Providence remain on hold.

Hurricane Irene, and her lesser alter ego, Tropical Storm Irene, caused devastation up and down the East Coast, and hit a commensurate number of Nielsen homes in the process. Markets including Boston, New York, Baltimore, Washington, Richmond and Raleigh-Durham all experienced what Nielsen calls "data exclusions" -- insufficient sample size required to issue the ratings. Most affected markets were back on track in a matter of days. Richmond-Petersburg stations started received ratings Sept. 2, while Hartford-New Haven and Providence remain on hold, as Nielsen brings demographic and geographic representation levels up to the minimum.

"After a storm occurs, a lack of households or persons that are in-tabulation is typically a result of power outages," said Nielsen in an Aug. 31 email update to clients. "As the power is restored in each market, it's typical that the affected metered homes will start calling in successfully, a day after power is restored. If we continue to have issues with an individual home after power is reinstated, Nielsen Field Representatives will follow-up on an individual home by home basis."

As many as 80,000 households in the Richmond-Petersburg area remain without electricity, after a high point of nearly 400,000. By several estimates, around half of Connecticut's households were without power following the storm. In Hartford-New Haven, DMA No. 30, the so called "in-tab" count is currently 390 homes, according to one local GM, short of the minimum 420, and well off the pre-storm level of 475. "It's not pretty in terms of getting data information," said the GM.

Nielsen is of course addressing the various issues, and hustling to get ratings re-established in the affected markets. A Nielsen spokesperson did not offer a target date for the return of ratings in the two remaining dark markets. "We continue to monitor it, and we continue to work on it," said the spokesperson.

With Nielsen ratings the currency of local television, their absence can cause hiccups in a station's business transactions. "Their ability to produce ratings that are usable is an issue," says one Top Ten market GM. "It remains to be seen, but I assume clients will work with us on this."

While the ratings blackout gave station chiefs, many who are quick to criticize Nielsen even in fair weather, a reason to blast the ratings giant, most absolved Nielsen of the bulk of the blame. Most believe Nielsen is working hard -- like so many East Coast homeowners -- to patch up holes caused by Irene.

"My guess is they're doing what they can," says Steve Rabb, WTIC Hartford's senior manager of special projects. "They're not the ones turning the power back on."

Station execs note that the timing of the ratings glitch could be a lot worse. "It's not like it's Premiere Week, with people back at work and in school," says Klarn DePalma, vice president and general manager at WFSB Hartford-New Haven. "That would be disappointing."