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Nielsen cuts down guesswork

Diaries will give way to high-tech gizmos to measure TV viewing.

Published April 25, 2007


Dear diary: So long

Thursday signals the end of an era as the Nielsen Co. embarks on its last significant paper-based survey its TV-viewing diaries for the Tampa-St. Petersburg television market.

On Oct. 4, the TV ratings kingpin is launching its Local People Meter in the St. Petersburg, Tampa and Sarasota markets. The electronic device measures television viewing in real time, tracking members of a household as they come and go and flip channels along the way.

It replaces set-top boxes and paper diaries, and offers advertisers and television networks demographics and viewership data for every day of the year.

Nielsen officials said real-time measurements and newer technology have become necessary in a changing world.

"Television viewing is up," said Don Lowery, vice president of communications and public affairs, as he heralded the local plans Tuesday at the company's Oldsmar office. "People are watching more TV, but they are watching different things."

Nielsen has its headquarters in New York, but its Oldsmar complex is the nerve center of its ratings analysis and home to 1,800 employees.

The People Meter debuted nationally in 1987, but suffered hiccups in local markets. In New York, executives at the Fox and UPN affiliates launched a tirade after they saw dropoffs in viewing and alleged that blacks and Hispanics were undercounted, resulting in plummeting ratings for minority-targeted programs. Nielsen fought back with a $50-million commitment by aggressively reaching out to minorities and investing in additional research, advertising and lobbying campaigns.

In the Tampa market, the company this month announced a community awareness and advertising campaign specifically targeting African-Americans, Hispanics and Asians.

"We want every household to understand who we are what we do and what the Local People Meter measurement is all about," Lowery said.

The new technology is a better gauge than the existing diaries, which allow people to go back in time and falsify their preferences, said Thomas Hollihan, a communications professor at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Journalism. "But it's not flawless because it doesn't measure how attentive people are," Hollihan said.

Yet networks are frightened by it because the data are immediate and could affect the flow of advertising dollars, he said.

At least one area network station said it isn't worried about the People Meter.

"We are excited about embracing anything that enhances our audience measurement system," said Laura Caruso, vice president and station manager at WTOG-Ch. 44. "Newer technology tend to better serve viewers and make broadcasters and advertisers happy."

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Madhusmita Bora can be reached at (813) 225-3112 or

People Meter

What is it?

An electronic device that measures television viewership in real time.

How does it work?

The company recruits random households and trains people to use the device. The device has a series of prompts to remind viewers to log in when they watch TV and log out when they stop.

[Last modified April 24, 2007, 22:58:12]

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