Write us down, or we may go dark
Nielsen threatens to de-list stations that target diary keepers
By Steve McClellan -- Broadcasting & Cable, 11/19/2000 7:00:00 PM
Nielsen Media Research says it's instituting a major new get-tough policy on TV stations that promote directly to meter/diary households during the sweeps. "Do it once, you get a warning. Do it again, and you'll be booted out of the ratings book."
That's pretty harsh, but many believe it's a long overdue shift in enforcement policy that will actually have some teeth to it.
And de-listing could cost a station millions, because ad agencies won't buy ads without ratings, according to station executives. "A lot of careers are on the line on that one," said one executive about a station that gets bounced from the ratings book.
It rarely happens, at least up to now. A Nielsen spokesman said he wasn't aware of any previous examples of a station's being deleted from a book for promoting directly to diary keepers.
But Stan Crumley, general manager of WSAV-TV , the Media General-owned NBC affiliate in Savannah, Ga., was caught violating the rule in early November. He defended his action, saying the intent (and it was intentional) was not to influence viewing patterns but rather to improve the accuracy of diaries.
But Nielsen wasn't buying it and told WSAV-TV to cease and desist or risk being completely removed from the November 2000 ratings book, Crumley confirmed.
The ratings service delivered the same message to WJCL(TV) Savannah, which apparently started airing diary-keeper-targeted promos after WSAV-TV began doing it in the market.
Another Media General station, WHLT(TV) Hattiesburg, Miss., was also told to stop airing a diary-targeted promo, which hinted that its news programming might fade to black if viewers didn't write down the call letters in their diaries.
Calls to Media General TV-station- group head Jim Zimmerman and WHLT station manager Todd Buccelli were not returned by deadline.
WSAV 's Crumley said he told Nielsen that the ratings firm was obligated to tell all other stations that they'd be threatened with de-listing for further violations because, he explained, in the past, Nielsen merely gave offending stations a slap on the wrist and a notation in the ratings book.
So, in a letter to all client stations dated Nov. 9, Nielsen informed them that stations caught targeting diary keepers would get one warning. Stations that don't stop "will be de-listed from the entire [ratings book]."
WSAV kept its promos short and sweet: "You're watching News 3 at 6 on WSAV . If you have a ratings diary, please write it down now." Other spots ran within Oprah and Today.
"I was not trying to drive viewership," said Crumley. "What I was trying to do is drive accuracy and the return [rate] of the diaries."
Many in the business agree that diaries aren't the most accurate way to record viewership. Meters in smaller markets like Savannah, Crumley said, are prohibitively expensive.
Still, competitors in the market cried foul, arguing that, when one station violates them, the entire ratings book is tainted. "It at least raises the question of the credibility of the numbers," said a competing general manager in Savannah. "All of us who have grown up in the business know that this is just an absolute out-of-bounds no-no. It's something you just don't do."
A longer promo, roughly 60 seconds, ran repeatedly on Media General's WHLT in Hattiesburg, Miss. It said, in part: "I'm Rex Thompson, chief forecaster for WHLT 22 Daily News. If you're keeping track in a television diary which programs you are watching this week, write us down. ... Without you, we wouldn't be able to continue providing 22 Daily News at 5, 6 and 10 p.m. So if you've got a television diary or know someone who does, make sure, write us down: WHLT 22 Daily News. Thank you for watching and remember to write us down, talk us up; we always want to be here for you."
Jim Cameron, general manager at WDAM-TV Hattiesburg, confirmed that he filed a complaint with Nielsen after seeing the WHLT spot run repeatedly in different dayparts. "This was a true act of desperation," said Cameron. W HLT launched its newscasts about a year and a half ago and regularly gets trounced by WDAM-TV in the ratings.
Cameron also noted that he was disappointed in Nielsen's response, which was to issue a warning and probably a note in the November book. "I thought they should de-list them from the book. Something as flagrant as that should have greater ramifications. The ad agencies are looking at the numbers" and pay little attention to footnotes about rules violations, he added. "If they want to be a legitimate station, they should play by the rules."
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