In what is believed to be the most comprehensive study of its kind, a Foote, Cone & Belding Communications study provided to Advertising Age International found wide variations in the performance of people meter TV ratings systems in 26 countries surveyed.
FCB's worldwide media research staff in New York contacted media directors in 35 countries. In all, 26 responses were received by mail or fax; there is no margin of error.
In 15 of the 26 markets, TV ratings declined-often sharply-when people meters were used as a measurement means, from the levels reported by the ratings systems used previously in those countries.
In five of the markets, ratings were up, as much as 25% and 20%, respectively, in Australia and the U.K.
And in six countries there was either no change or a mixed bag of results that make comparisons difficult.
The findings, now being circulated to FCB offices and clients worldwide, are significant because in most TV markets around the world, TV ratings are more than theoretical research: They serve as the "currency" of TV negotiations.
"The immediate reason we did this project was that Taiwan and Mexico had just switched to people meters from other systems and we were finding really big differences. The call came to us to find out if this is normal," said Joanne Burke, senior VP-worldwide director of media research at FCB, New York.
Were those experiences common? Yes and no.
Yes, because most of the markets that have switched to people meters have found big differences in ratings levels. And no, because the FCB study found no "normal" pattern to the changes.
In Mexico, for example, ratings fell 30% on average when the country shifted to a people meter system from a hybrid method of TV set meters and written diaries.
Even minor changes can translate into significant changes in the TV marketplace. For example, when the U.S. shifted to people meters in 1987 from a hybrid meter/diary system, TV ratings levels dropped 5% to 10% for the major TV networks.
While the changes were methodological and did not represent any real shift in viewing patterns, the impact was just as real. According to David Poltrack, senior VP-research and planning of CBS, the shift cost the Big 3 TV networks in the U.S. about $40 million in lost revenues that year in a market of about $10 billion.
The ratings changes in the 26 markets surveyed have already contributed to tangible changes in the way TV time purchased in some markets. Italian media buyers, for example, "are beginning to use exact minute ratings," said Ms. Burke. This is a more narrowly defined system than in, say, the U.S., where average quarter hour ratings are used.
Along with the U.S., Mexico and Taiwan, 12 other markets showed marked declines in TV ratings after converting to people meters.
The impact, in the most extreme cases, was unusually dramatic. In Argentina, ratings fell as much as 50% for the most popular programs when the market shifted to people meters from diaries.
A few markets showed only moderate drops, but others saw tremendous ratings growth, including the U.K. and Australia. "There are lots of reasons for the variations," said Ms. Burke, including legal reasons and privacy laws that do not allow for random sampling.