Nielsen Media Research is delaying the rollout of its "local people meters" in the New York market under pressure from local lawmakers and network executives who fear an undercounting of minority viewership.
Nielsen created the electronic measuring devices to replace the handwritten diaries that TV viewers have been using since the 1950s. The people meters were slated for an April 8 launch, but following the recent outcry against the device, Nielsen said it is forming a task force to ensure that minority viewers are accurately counted.
Nielsen, owned by Dutch conglomerate VNU, will also begin an extensive public relations campaign promoting the service that is now slated to begin June 3.
The NAACP and New York politicians including Rep. Charles Rangel and Sen. Hilary Clinton along with some members of the New York City Council also urged Nielsen to delay the implementation because of concerns that the service would not accurately count minority constituents.
But TV and media executives say much of the pressure comes from the TV networks themselves, such as the Fox Television Stations Group, part of News Corp. People meters introduced in Boston in 2002 reported significant audience migration from local TV to cable networks, and New York networks are afraid the same phenomenon would occur here.
According to media executives contacted by Adage.com, a recent trial run of the meters in New York showed audience numbers dropping at NBC-owned Telemundo, Fox 5, Viacom's UPN 9 and Time Warner's WB 11, stations that draw a strong minority viewership.
Spotting the irony of the recent events, media agency executives said Nielsen has been under pressure for some time by networks to scrap the inefficient diary methodology in favor of computerized people meters, and now, as they are poised to follow through, local broadcasters are asking Nielsen to stop.
"Networks love the national people meters," a media agency executive said, "but they're afraid of the local numbers, because they are coming up short."
Last week, the board of directors of the National Association of Broadcasters issued a press release saying it asked Nielsen to delay implementing the local service in New York. But a spokesman at Nielsen said the NAB had not contacted Nielsen directly; the company learned about the NAB request through the press release. "There appears to be an orchestrated campaign to discredit the service and in the process undermine the sample, particularly in New York," the Nielsen spokesman said.
Nielsen's measurement-gathering has been under attack for some time; networks and advertisers had earlier faulted Nielsen methodology for the decline of young male viewership, a much coveted demographic by advertisers.
The two-month New York delay throws a small wrench into Nielsen's plan to double its national people meter sample to about 10,000 homes by expanding its local people meters to the top 10 markets between now and 2006. Nielsen ratings, the currency of U.S. TV advertising, supplies audience rating data to the seven broadcast networks, more than 60 cable networks, more than 100 syndicated programs and more than 150 agencies and advertisers, who all pay for the service.
"I'm disappointed," said Kathy Crawford, president of local broadcast at WPP Group's MindShare, of the delay. "I'm not a researcher and I'm not a politician, but we could be giving clients more accurate audience information [with people meters]."
"There is a huge financial and credibility issue for Nielsen. Nielsen has made a huge investment [in people meters]," said Karen Agresti, senior vice president and director of local broadcast at Interpublic Group of cos.' Hill Holliday, Connors, Cosmopulos. She said the delay couldn't happen at a worse time, just as broadcasters, cable nets and syndicators are starting to preview new programming for the summer and falls seasons.
The next "sweeps" period, which currently relies heavily on the diary system, begins April 29 and ends May 26. "We need to know what measurement system we're using," Ms. Agresti said.