November is shaping up to be a strong sweeps month for WZZM, the ABC affiliate in the Grand Rapids-Kalamazoo-Battle Creek, Mich., market. Prime time is peaking, and breaking stories—including a massive downtown fire and the first snowstorm of the season—are drawing viewers to its newscasts. But WZZM and its rivals will have to wait until mid December for ratings feedback. That's because stations in Grand Rapids, Nielsen's 39th-largest TV market, do not report overnight ratings.
Nielsen has deployed electronic set-top meters that measure daily ratings in 56 markets nationwide, but they are not the 56 largest markets. Nielsen has skipped over a dozen sizable markets, including Harrisburg, Pa. (42); Albany, N.Y. (55); and Little Rock, Ark. (57)—all of which still rely on paper diaries from the four sweeps months as their only source of information on who is watching. Cost, station executives say, has kept them from upgrading to meters.
The last market to upgrade was Tulsa, Okla., in April 2004. Since then, Nielsen has been focused on deploying its local-people-meter (LPM) system, which records daily demographic results, eliminating the need for diaries altogether. So far, seven markets have upgraded to LPMs, and Nielsen expects to complete the top 10 within the next two years. But the company would continue to install set-top meters in new markets if it had support for local stations and advertising agencies, a Nielsen spokesperson said.
Stations rely on ratings data to measure their performance. Broadcasters do not sell on the set-top household rating—demographic data are the currency for ad sales and still come from sweeps diaries—but the overnights provide an important guide to their performance. Proponents say meters help stations (and local media buyers) set prices throughout the year, rather than relying solely on sweeps results.
TOO COSTLY FOR SOME
But obtaining daily data information is not cheap, and that has deterred many stations from signing on. In a metered market, stations typically spend $30,000-$40,000 per month to subscribe to Nielsen's service—three to four times what a diary-market station pays. “There is no guarantee we can generate the ad-sales revenue to offset the expense,” says Janet Mason, general manager, WZZM.
In the meantime, relying on diaries frustrates station managers. In Albany, Jeff Whitson, general manager of Fox affiliate WXXA, has been pushing for meters since he arrived in 2002. “This is market No. 55, it is the state capital, and we have good stations,” he says. For two years, Whitson organized meetings with Nielsen and the other Albany stations, but he says his rivals did not want to sign on, citing the high cost.
Besides being pricey, some believe the metered information, which typically shows a wider range of viewing, can be misleading. When WZZM's Mason worked in Minneapolis, a metered market, the daily ratings encouraged knee-jerk reactions, she says. “The managers would look at the overnights and start drawing conclusions about what we did and what we should change.”
When Nielsen launched meters in Ft. Myers, Fla.—the No. 68 market and the smallest to have the technology—in May 2001, three stations boycotted. At the time, the general manager of the NBC affiliate said he could add 40 full-time employees for the cost of the service. Eventually, however, all of the stations signed on.
In Tulsa, stations are still adjusting to the impact of the meters. Affiliates of the younger broadcast networks—UPN, Fox and The WB—have seen ratings improve. Some lower-brow shows that might go unrecorded in diaries—such as The Maury Povich Show, Jerry Springer and reality programs—actually show better overnights than diary ratings. “It is good to see ratings rather than just relying on people voting for their favorites in their diaries,” says Michael Kronley, general manager of NBC affiliate KJRH. “It keeps us on our toes.”
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