TV Stations Worry 'People Meters' Miss Minorities

By John Maynard
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 26, 2005

Nearly all of Washington's major broadcast stations are asking Nielsen Media Research to delay the scheduled rollout of its new TV ratings system next week because they say it undercounts minority viewers.

The parent companies of WJLA (Channel 7), WUSA (Channel 9), WTTG (Channel 5), WDCA (Channel 20) and WBDC (Channel 50) argue that preliminary results of the new Local People Meter system are not counting a disproportionate number of black and Hispanic households, as well as younger viewers and larger families.

Nielsen intends to officially switch to people meters (or LPMs) on June 2, despite the stations' protests. LPMs, which now count viewers in the five largest markets, are designed to deliver a more accurate snapshot of TV-watching habits, using a meter that sits atop every television in a Nielsen household. The meter records which programs each family member watches. But the trick is getting everyone to remember to log on properly, leading critics to say it's too unreliable.

During a tryout from May 2 to 15, the people meters detected a drop in all area viewers across several time slots. When approximately 650,000 households were thought to be watching local TV between 5 and 7 p.m. earlier this year, the LPMs indicated that 124,000 fewer households were watching the top local stations at all. (And cable lost another 114,000 households in that slot.)

LPMs will be used in more than 600 households in the Washington area market. They will replace the approximately 440 older meters that currently track viewership -- but without specific demographic information. People meters will also eliminate the diary system reserved for the four ratings "sweeps" periods, which determine the stations' advertising rates.

"We believe the numbers in Washington, D.C., are wrong," said Jerald Fritz, a senior vice president at Allbritton Communications, which owns WJLA, during a news conference call yesterday. "Nielsen's numbers are wrong because the new local people meter is not counting lots of people."

"We're looking for an accurate rating system, and when you have as many people as there are currently being left out of the sample, it cannot be accurate," Duffy Dyer, general manager of Fox-owned WTTG, said in a phone interview yesterday.

A coalition of local-station representatives planned to meet with Nielsen today.

NBC-owned WRC (Channel 4), which is usually ranked No. 1 for local news under the old system, is the only station that hasn't joined the coalition, although it was invited.

"We do have concerns with the current sample composition as it relates to the planned rollout of the LPMs, but believe it's more effective to deal with these business issues through direct discussions with Nielsen," an NBC spokeswoman said in a statement.

Allbritton's Fritz contended that the "faulting" rates of LPMs are "simply off the chart," referring to the percentage of households in the sample for which no usable ratings data was collected.

Critics of people meters, including the advocacy group Don't Count Us Out, claim that Nielsen hasn't adequately taught all households how to use the device, which requires each family member to log on with the people-meter remote before channel-surfing. A fault can occur for many reasons: forgetfulness; the meter becomes disconnected; power failures; wires are crossed with other electronics.

Fritz said that for the week ending May 15, Nielsen failed to collect any data in 25 percent of homes with Hispanic viewers that are wired with an LPM, and about 17 percent of homes with black viewers.

Nielsen released a statement yesterday refuting the coalition's numbers, which it says were based on only one week of the trial dates. Nielsen says the fault rates for Hispanic and African American households since April are at about 14 and 12 percent, respectively.

The fault rate among all homes with people meters in the Washington market is about 8 percent.

Still, Nielsen spokesman Jack Loftus acknowledges that the fault rates among minority households is a "fair issue, but one that is true of all metered samples." He also contends that the fault rates are better than those of the old meter sets.

The local stations are alarmed because they're seeing a drop in viewership in key time slots, Loftus said. "We've changed the currency, and whenever you change the currency the numbers change," he said.

Despite the high fault rates from predominantly black homes, total viewership levels were actually up in that demographic during the test run -- most notably on cable channels, according to Nielsen. That means fewer people were watching the local affiliates during the sweeps period. People meters could, in effect, make every day a sweeps period.

Loftus said he is encouraged that the meters are already delivering numbers that in many cases are dramatically different from what Nielsen reported a year ago. "That diversity of viewing is captured by the people meter," he said.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company