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First there was the people meter. Now, NPD Group is releasing the first data from its PC-Meter, a tracking system that monitors how people spend time on their personal computers.

According to results provided exclusively to Advertising Age, more home PC owners turn their computer on between 6 p.m. and 9 p.m. than any other time during the day. And 28.3% of those surveyed logged onto an online service at least once.

There are plenty of services that track or measure traffic to Web sites. The PC-Meter adds another layer of analysis: demographic information and individual computer usage patterns.

"The PC-Meter measures the behavior of the individual vs. the behavior of the site," said Steve Coffey, VP-general manager for NPD's PC-Meter, Port Washington, N.Y.

The meter attaches to a computer and measures how long consumers use the machine, what software or online services they access and how long they spend online. Each user provides their name, age and sex before using the PC.

NPD is monitoring only households with Windows-based PCs for now but plans to expand to other platforms as the survey sample grows.

The first results from the July survey of 378 people show 10.9% had their PC on in the average minute between 6 p.m. and 9 p.m.

The PC-Meter also found that 28.3% of the households had connected to one of the Big Three commercial online services during the month. Of those, 15.9% entered America Online, 10.3% entered CompuServe, 9% entered Prodigy and 9.3% used stand-alone Internet providers. (The total is more than 28.3% because some computer owners used more than one online service.)

The survey found that more than 40% of commercial online service users were female, a sign of women's growing interest in computers. Men still dominate when it comes to stand-alone Internet access providers, though, accounting for 84% of users.

NPD expects the PC-Meter sample to grow to about 10,000 households by the end of next year. About 500 households are participating in the program nationally now.

By November, NPD plans to have more specific results about where users are going within online services and how much time they are spending in those areas.

NPD also plans to track Web site movement on a page-by-page basis. This information will prove useful to advertisers wanting information on site traffic.

The advertising community has watched the development of the PC-Meter with great interest.

"Focus on a Web counter is fine for measuring of a site," said Jayne Spittler, senior VP-director of media research at Leo Burnett Co., Chicago. "But PC-Meter brings a different piece of the puzzle showing how people use the computer and how they spend their computer time."

"NPD is the only company right now that has a solid alternative to Web counting," said Beth Uyenco, VP-director of media research at DDB Needham Worldwide.

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