Ratings services take a walk

Arbitron, Nielsen venture on portable peoplemeter could find lost viewers

Cable networks and broadcasters alike applauded the advent of Arbitron's Portable People Meter last week and noted, hopefully, that, if the system works as it should, it could help them find viewers "lost'' through existing measurement devices.

Just as remarkable as that unanimity of opinion is the united front historic rivals Arbitron and Nielsen Media Research have forged to cooperate on testing the portable "walking meters'' in Philadelphia, and perhaps eventually deploying them elsewhere. "These are unusual times," deadpanned John Dimling, Nielsen president and CEO.

The portable meter utilizes an unusual technology: a pager-like device that detects audio signals encoded in the soundtracks of TV shows and radio programming, effectively recording whatever a consumer carrying it encounters each day. That includes the corner bar and the car radio.

Sports and news networks figure to be the prime beneficiaries on the cable side of the pager-like technology that could suddenly put sports bars and offices on the metered map. Art Bulgrin, ESPN vice president of research, estimates the weekly out-of-home audience at 4 million and says 60% of those viewers lack access to the sports net at home.

College campuses are where ESPN really feels it's losing ratings. "When they go back to school, they're taken out of the TV audience," says Bulgrin.

News nets could be big winners from the portable meters, according to John Rash, senior vice president for Campbell Methun Esty, who says they'll benefit from a "more accurate portrayal" of daytime viewership.

David Poltrack, CBS executive vice president for research and a frequent Nielsen critic, calls the portable device "promising" in its potential to replace current audience-measurement technology. "If we could get a universal measurement technology that's in use 52 weeks a year in all venues, then we would be taking a fairly major step forward," CBS' ratings guru declared.

He sees strong potential to measure TV events more accurately. CBS will cooperate on both the TV and radio side in Philadelphia, according to Poltrack, who's glad Arbitron and Nielsen have put aside "parochial differences" for the portable project.

Arbitron and Nielsen are introducing the walking multimedia-measurement system in Philadelphia among a random sample of 300 consumers late this year. The test universe will expand to more than 1,000 sample participants by the end of 2001, according to Arbitron spokesman Tom Mocarsky. Arbitron has already completed a successful test of the portable meters conducted in the UK over a two-year period.

Success depends on cooperation of the users-and local broadcasters and cable networks. "We have to see that the broadcasters and the cable companies will encode and want to encode."

The technology's success also depends on consumers' nightly plugging the peoplemeter devices into the docking devices they'll be provided to register their multimedia usage and recharge their walking meters.

John Rash sees that as a potential sticking point: "Requiring them to bring a device along with them makes it more difficult than when the measurement occurs in living rooms." But, he adds, "in an increasingly mobile society, it is imperative that new technologies are developed and deployed to enable more accurately measured viewing."