People Held Up In Apple

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Cable operators here will have to wait until after the May sweeps for the controversial rollout of Local People Meters, which should help boost cable-network ratings and put new ad dollars into MSOs’ coffers.

Nielsen Media Research — under fire from News Corp., a variety of black and Hispanic groups and local politicians — at the last minute delayed its scheduled debut of the methodology in New York City until June 3.

There were allegations last week that News Corp. was “strong-arming” Nielsen — as it was put by one operator who didn’t want to be identified — and was helping to orchestrate an anti-LPM campaign, which has included full-page ads by a coalition of Big Apple black and Hispanic groups called Don’t Count Us Out.

“It’s become a highly politicized event and it’s not clear to me that in this highly charged atmosphere, if everyone is aware of the basic matrix that Nielsen has,” said Jonathan Sims, vice president of research for Comcast Spotlight, the ad-sales arm of Comcast Corp. and the top advocate for the new collection system among local cable ad salesmen. “The biggest shame of this all is that it’s more accurate data.”

Nielsen had been set to roll out the meters last Thursday, but pulled back following a groundswell of criticism from minorities, elected officials and broadcasters like the National Association of Broadcasters, who claim the LPMs underrepresent black and Latino viewers.

There is good reason for some broadcasters to be griping about LPMs, since any ratings declines they suffer will mean lost ad revenue in New York City.

In Boston, where LPMs are already deployed, cable’s viewership in younger demographics is up 51% to 66%, while broadcast is down as much as 24%, according to Nielsen data cited last week by Merrill Lynch analyst Jessica Reif Cohen.

Cable advertising will be “a big beneficiary” of LPMs, Reif Cohen wrote in a report. She projected that the combination of Nielsen’s planned rollout of LPMs in big DMAs, Comcast’s expansion of hard interconnects in the Top 50 markets, and more locally insertable networks will “drive cable’s local advertising at 20-plus percent over the next several years.”

RANGEL AID

For help, Nielsen enlisted U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.). At a press conference in his Harlem office last Tuesday, Rangel said Nielsen was postponing the New York LPM rollout to address the concerns that have come from a variety of critics, ranging from U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton (D.-N.Y.) to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

“We wanted to take the time to address the many questions we received from community leaders and elected officials,” Nielsen CEO Susan Whiting said. “There simply wasn’t time to address all those questions responsibly before our original launch date of April 8.”

In the next few weeks, Nielsen plans “a very aggressive communications campaign, so we can assure them that the service in New York is the service they deserve,” Whiting said.

Rangel will also help Nielsen to form an ongoing task force to study ways to guarantee an accurate measurement of African-American and Latino viewers.

News Corp. officials couldn’t be reached for comment last week.

Nielsen officials maintain that while viewing for shows popular among African Americans, like UPN’s The Parkers, drops with LPMs, those audiences aren’t just disappearing. Since the LPMs are more accurate than the current metered-diary system, Nielsen contends, they simply show the true distribution of those viewers, with a larger portion going to smaller outlets like cable networks.

“We have seen increases in viewing to a number of channels,” Whiting said.

That’s why the cable industry has been lobbying for LPMs for years, with Comcast, Time Warner Cable and the Cabletelevision Advertising Bureau supporting the technology and the New York rollout.

“We’re comfortable with Nielsen’s methodology and supportive of their launch in the New York and L.A. markets,” a Time Warner Cable spokesman said.

Sims noted that even though Nielsen is delaying LPMs, the ratings company has expressed confidence in their accuracy and plans to proceed with the rollout, albeit two months later than planned.

OPS 'HORRIFIED’

“A lot of people in the industry are horrified that this whole event occurred like this,” Sims said, referring to the furor over the LPMs. “As the cable industry, we know the biases of the diary system. They’re severe. A system that was good in 1964, 40 years later no longer works.”

There would cause for concern if the LPM data showed a decrease in overall TV viewing, but it doesn’t, according to Sims.

“But for any individual show or individual network [to drop], as a researcher, that’s not as significant, unless I happen to be with that entity,” Sims said. “And moreover, everyone knew going into the introduction of People Meters, especially from a diary system, that there were going to be overall pluses and minuses, and some sources of viewing were going to go up and some sources of viewing were going to go down.”

ESPN senior vice president and director of research and sales development Artie Bulgrin isn’t surprised at how some ratings have changed with the LPMs.

“Diaries have been known to overstate [broadcast] network viewing and understate cable viewing: That’s just a fact of life,” said Bulgrin, who defended Nielsen’s sample. But he thinks the delay is a good idea, so Nielsen can do an analysis and have an explanation for major viewing shifts.

“Perhaps it is Nielsen’s fault that it didn’t anticipate these questions, because they see the data before anybody, and defused the situation before it began,” Bulgrin said. “There are questions that need to be answered. Obviously, lots of money rides on this data.”

TELEMUNDO BACKING

The LPM launch in New York has the support of at least one broadcast outlet, NBC, and its Telemundo station.

“We are disappointed in the delay and its disruption to business for everyone in the industry,” a spokeswoman for New York’s WNBC-TV and Telemundo’s WNJU-TV said. “Our goal is for the best methodology to be implemented and for the sample to be an accurate representation of the New York marketplace.”

According to Whiting, there are more blacks and Hispanics in the 800-home LPM sample in New York, compared with the old metered-diary system. Nielsen has also stressed that for years, People Meters have been used to collect national ratings, with no complaints from broadcasters like News Corp., which use those numbers to sell ads.

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