WCVB Offers Guarantees

Are station ratings guarantees the unintended consequence of Nielsen's local people meters? That's a question raised in light of an OMD Worldwide report issued last week analyzing the Boston market one year after the inauguration of the devices began there.

The report noted the "positive development" that Hearst-Argyle Television's WCVB-TV, the ABC affiliate, had begun issuing ratings guarantees for its entire schedule. Typically, stations don't do that, although ratings guarantees by broadcast networks are routine.

But competitors in the market said the station's guarantees were not "positive" news by a long shot. In fact, one competing station executive said it was bad for business, "insulting to clients" and a sign that WCVB-TV needed some gimmick to compete in the marketplace.

Clearly, that's a subjective view, but the strategy appears to be working: WCVB-TV grew its national spot business by three market-share points in the third quarter, according to sources at the company.

People familiar with the situation say the station's ratings-guarantee policy really had more to do with new General Sales Manager Peter Hennessey's trying to shake things up a bit than with Nielsen's local people meters per se. In recent ratings books, WCVB-TV has dropped to No. 2 or 3 in late-news ratings, due in no small part to ABC's prime time performance. But the station has been able hold onto first in other news dayparts.

According to sources, the station bases its ratings guarantees on "historical ratings levels" in the time period, including newscasts, prime time and the other dayparts as well.

So far, say market watchers, other stations have not followed suit with guarantees.

Nielsen didn't have an easy time introducing local people meters to the market. WCVB-TV was the first major broadcast station to sign on, and there was a lag time before others followed.

Andrew Green, OMD's director of strategic analysis and consulting group and the author of the agency's Boston ratings report, suggests that station guarantees could well become the trend. Indeed, Nielsen expanded its local people meter into Los Angeles two months ago and to New York this month. It will get to the rest of the top 10 markets over the next three years, and, as Nielsen expands the service, Green says, "things like guarantees and make-goods may become the norm now that [ratings become] much more accurately measured. It seems that one station has taken the lead on that."

But Boston stations see WCVB-TV's guaranteeing ratings as a bad precedent. "Nobody else up here is doing that, because they don't have to," said one executive in the market. "It's implicit in the station-client relationship that we treat our customers fairly. We don't have to use that trick."

Meanwhile, OMD has concluded after a year of people meter service in Boston that Nielsen ought to do away with diaries altogether because they are so inaccurate in measuring demographic ratings. For example, in Boston, the average rating for the prime time access period—where shows like Wheel of Fortune
and Hollywood Squares
air—dropped 9% from May 2001, when the market used a diary, to May 2003, when it used a local people meter.

Still, Nielsen uses the diary method to collect most demographic ratings for stations. Even in the 50-plus markets (covering close to 70% of U.S. TV households) where set meters are in place, Nielsen still relies on the diary to get the demo data four times a year—February, May, July and November.

Ideally, all members of a Nielsen "family" would faithfully record every snippet of programming they watch as they're watching it. But what usually happens is Mom fills out the entire thing at the end of the week (probably taking wild stabs at what junior watched last Tuesday) just before dropping it in the mail to Dunedin, Fla. (central command for Nielsen's numbers-crunching operation).

That's why the broadcast stations and prime time shows in Boston have seen drops in the ratings under the people meter, says Green. When filling out a diary, it's hard to remember when you watched 15 minutes of a Nat Geo special on baby alligators the other night. The local people meter, however, catches everybody's viewing down to the quarter-hour.

OMD contends that there are valid methodologies that are much more accurate than the diary. One is a product called Fusion, marketed by ad-sales rep firm NCC. That service blends set-meter household viewing data with so-called viewers per viewing household (VPVH) data derived from the national people meter to extrapolate local demo ratings. OMD analyzed extrapolated prime time ratings (adults 25-54) that Fusion crafted for 38 ad-supported cable networks in Boston in November 2002 and February 2002 and found that they came within 1% of the ratings reported by Nielsen's people meter service.