Eyeball counting in Beantown

Boston market to be the first to make a complete transition to Nielsen's People Meters
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While broadcasters continue to resist the switch, cable companies in Boston are betting that local People Meters will be more accurate than the current system and boost their ratings at the same time.

Nielsen Media Research says that, by May 2002, Beantown will have made the complete transition to local People Meters, becoming the first market in the U.S. to do so. And nine other markets will make the switch over the next three years.

New England Cable News will likely become Nielsen's second paying customer, after AT&T Broadband last week, for Boston People Meters. "We are definitely going to sign on for People Meters," says Phil Balboni, president of NECN.

"We have long felt that the diary system for gathering demographic information is a woefully inadequate and obsolete method of dealing with a 100- to 200-channel universe in a large sophisticated market like this one. We've been frustrated with how our network has been portrayed in the diary sample, and we believe the electronic measurement of the individual household members' viewing should be much more accurate."

If Nielsen sticks to its current plan, the Boston broadcasters will just have to embrace the new system, which begins in demonstration mode for this May's sweeps. The ratings company says its plans to pull the plug on the current set-top meters—that measure just household ratings—in May 2002. That would give a full year of comparative data for the two different methodologies.

To say that Mike Carson, general manager of WHDH-TV, lacks enthusiasm would be an understatement. "We think it's an inferior product. It's crazy that Boston is going to be measured one way; the entire rest of the country is going to be measured another way. Boston is going to be out of sync. The different methodology doesn't jibe with the way the entire industry operates. We've gone on the record that we're not going to subscribe to it." Why Boston, he asks. "Why not El Paso?"

Ed Goldman, general manager at WBZ-TV, is unsure about his station's future regarding Nielsen's new methods and suggests that future deals for the costlier service might be negotiated with the station's owner, CBS. But Goldman is also skeptical and criticizes the new method's 420-home-sample size (which will be expanded to 600 homes by August) and technology. A bigger sample would be necessary, he says, "to make this system mirror the level of technology in the 21st century. This doesn't sound like a big breakthrough to me."

Goldman acknowledges that the meters have an edge on diaries as a recording device. "What's being watched will be recorded correctly; I'll give them that. The question is, who's watching?" The system in which family members enter different codes, he suggests, "is not much different from the diaries. People get tired of filling out diaries. People will get lazy about doing this. I don't trust the codes."

The advertising community may also be skeptical, albeit still more receptive than the broadcasters. "If we all work off the same bad data," says a Boston advertising executive who does not want to be named, "at least the universe is the same." The ad exec says that the industry will watch the data and see how it matches the agency's own observations, instincts and experience. "There's more to media selection than numbers."

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For thousands of readers, for dozens of years, Donald V. West and BROADCASTING magazine were synonymous. He started at the magazine in 1953 and, except for a brief stint at CBS, has been here ever since, for many years as the magazine's editor. Now BROADCASTING & CABLE's editor at large, West looks back at the history this magazine witnessed, and his own role in the process.