Nielsen readies local meters for tryout in Boston

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Nielsen Media Research is talking to TV stations and cable operators in the Boston area about installing 600 local people meters. Boston, the nation's sixth-largest TV market, would be the first to use the devices for local measurement.

This could spark a major rollout of local people meters, a move that would likely mean significant changes in the multibillion-dollar spot TV marketplace.

A number of advertisers and ad agencies have decried Nielsen's local diary system, saying the hand-written method used to gather demographic data in local TV markets is antiquated.

Moving to local people meters would give far more accurate data about demographics in a market, they say, and the demographic data also would be available on a daily basis.

Major advertisers such as Procter & Gamble Co. and Warner-Lambert Co., in particular, have said information from diaries is so questionable that both have, at times, thought about reconsidering their commitment to spot TV spending.

INSTALLATION BY SUMMER

Nielsen Senior VP-Communications Jack Loftus confirmed that Nielsen was trying to get the go-ahead to put the local people meters in Boston by next spring or summer.

"We're hopeful to get customer support to move forward," Mr. Loftus said.

A major force behind the Boston plan is the dominant cable operator in the area, MediaOne. Cable has a penetration of about 80% in the market, and MediaOne executives claim cable viewing is far under-represented by the diary system.

"As is typical, we'll find out that some cable show has a 2 or 3 rating on Nielsen's set meters in the market, but then the diaries show nothing for demos," said one MediaOne official. "Local people meters would cure that problem."

Ed Dunbar, MediaOne's corporate VP-ad sales, confirmed it's in discussions with Nielsen, but declined to provide details.

20% INCREASE IN FEES

Local TV executives said Nielsen is looking for a 20% increase in fees, per station, to move to people meters. For a time, both people meters and local set meters--of which there are about 400 in Boston--would be used.

"I don't see a real incentive to move from the current system," said Mike Carson, VP-general manager of WHDH, the NBC affiliate in Boston.

The station's parent, Sunbeam Television, currently is in a dispute with Nielsen about its measurement in Miami, where Sunbeam owns another station.

Debbie Solomon, senior partner-group research director at the Chicago office of Warner-Lambert's ad agency, J. Walter Thompson USA, welcomed the possibility of people meters in Boston.

"Some of the bigger stations may be worried that a people meter will lower their ratings and that this will have an effect on prices," Ms. Solomon said. "That is not necessarily the case. Supply and demand is a much more dominant factor in setting prices."

Copyright December 1999, Crain Communications Inc.

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