People meters push right button

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Look out L.A. After a somewhat stormy introduction in Boston in 2002, Nielsen Media Research intends to begin using its controversial local people meter technology this year in Los Angeles.

Nielsen and many ad agencies are optimistic about the plan to expand LPM use to the top 10 TV markets by 2006. LPMs will eliminate Nielsen's antiquated paper diary, used for half a century to gather demographic information in local markets.

The LPM "is simply a much better method," says Phyllis Liebert, director of research for Time Warner Cable Advertising Sales in New York. Time Warner Cable and Comcast Corp. are backing the expansion of LPM use, as are broadcast networks ABC and NBC, both of which own TV stations in markets where the new system would be implemented.

While support for LPMs is building, it's not universal. Viacom, which owns stations affiliated with its CBS and UPN networks, remains on the fence, as does News Corp.'s Fox Entertainment Group and its networks and stations. "Our discussions with Nielsen have to do with the business terms of the contract, and not with the issue of local people meters," says David Poltrack, exec VP-research and planning at CBS Television.

Still, Nielsen plans to roll out LPMs in Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Dallas, Washington, Detroit and Atlanta over the next three years.

"We have strong support in every market," says a Nielsen spokeswoman. As for CBS and other stragglers, she says, "we hope to get them on board as quickly as we can."

Some broadcasters express concern that LPMs would indicate lower viewing levels, but early results from Boston don't bear that out. In fact, Nielsen figures show, viewing levels have increased in every demographic group.


Nielsen hopes to appease broadcasters by nearly doubling the size of its survey sample in each market, a move that should lead to more accurate reporting. Larger samples should also eliminate the pesky problem of "zero cell," a phenomenon that occurs when a set-top meter records viewing but the accompanying diary does not. It's been a vexing problem for lightly viewed cable and broadcast programs.

"We see it in some overnight [1 a.m. to 7 a.m.] time periods when your HUT [households using television] sample may be 8% or 0," says Patricia Liguori, VP-research for owned and operated television stations at Walt Disney Co.-owned ABC. "You take that and allocate it over 100-plus channels, and you have a lot of opportunity to show a zero cell."

After some shaky going last year in early Boston tests, Nielsen believes it has worked out the bugs. Although the results of pre-LPM and post-LPM surveys show some demographic shifts, total household viewing numbers look fairly stable.

"The remarkable thing about [results from] Boston is that it was unremarkable," says Janice Finkel Greene, exec VP-director of local broadcast strategy at Interpublic Group of Cos.' Initiative Media, New York. "It is very important that we get these data in a fast and usable format so that we can take the learning and help reach our clients' targets better."

But what worked in Boston may not translate easily to Los Angeles, a market with radically different ethnic factors.


"We don't know what to expect in the huge Hispanic population in Los Angeles," Ms. Greene says.

Nielsen has historically struggled to gather data from certain ethnic communities and among certain demographic groups. As a result, survey results are frequently "weighted" to reflect actual market composition.

Diary return has been an issue among some demographic groups as well. With people meters, Nielsen is no longer dependent on a viewer remembering to both fill out a diary accurately and to return it for processing.

There are other obstacles. Cost is a huge concern for broadcasters and cable programmers alike. In a big market like Boston, a local station might pay as much as $750,000 a year for the privilege of receiving Nielsen ratings and using them for sales purposes. The cost of LPMs, the larger survey sample and training viewers how to use the devices are expected to hike the cost to $850,000 a year or more per station. "Both advertisers and their agencies want this to move forward. They are putting pressure for more accurate measurement," Ms. Liebert says.

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