A new method of measuring the way people watch television indicates that Washingtonians are watching more TV than what was being measured under an older, soon-to-be-replaced ratings system.
During a preliminary run in May, Nielsen Media Research's new Local People Meter (LPM) system recorded a 10 percent increase in the average number of people watching television compared with the written paper diary system that has been used during "sweeps" months, including May, for the past 50 years.
The bad news for the six network-affiliated broadcast stations in town is that viewing levels are down throughout the day and during prime time. More distressing for local television executives is the finding that their newscasts are also down across the board, in some cases dramatically, when compared with the ratings generated by the diary system.
Meanwhile, Washington's cable television audiences are up during prime time and in the total day; the LPMs recorded that more people watched cable than the broadcast networks in May, on average, when comparing total-day ratings.
Nielsen spokeswoman Karen Gyimesi says the local people meters tend to hurt some of the more established stations that have benefited from the diary system.
"With the diary, we leave it up to the discretion of the viewer to fill out what they remember watching on TV," she said, "so they may overstate certain programs and may forget to fill in other programs."
The results of the LPMs follow a trend in cities where the system has already been rolled out, including the top five markets, showing cable viewership on the rise and broadcast audiences down.
"The diary is a broken device, a broken measurement tool," said Jonathan Sims, vice president of research for Comcast Spotlight, the local advertising division of this region's dominant cable system. "You have to keep in mind the diary was meant to measure three or four stations when they were first introduced.
"With the fragmentation of viewers, the memory linchpin of that device came unhinged."
The LPM system, designed to deliver a more accurate snapshot of TV-watching habits, is meant to replace two methods of measuring ratings when it officially launches on June 30. Meters in about 400 Washington homes currently provide Nielsen with only the basic television status -- on or off, what time, what channel. Nielsen augments the sample during the four sweeps months of February, May, July and November by asking a larger group to fill out a one-week viewing diary, which provides specific demographic data about the viewer so critical to advertisers.
People meters, on the other hand, would give the market immediate, overnight demographics from more than 600 area homes. Users, who have previously provided their demographic information, log on with a special remote, which then records their TV habits minute by minute.
The most dramatic drops, according to data released by Nielsen yesterday, are in the local stations' newscasts. At 5 p.m., when Channels 4, 5, 7 and 9 all have news programs airing simultaneously, ratings are down as much as 35 percent when comparing people meters with the diary system.
The station's important 6 and 11 p.m. newscasts are also down sharply.
The general manager of Fox-owned Channel 5, Duffy Dyer, who's spoken out in the past against LPMs, said it's "terribly frustrating" that Nielsen is sending data out to the marketplace before the stations have a chance to analyze it.
Still, Dyer said he is not satisfied with the high "faulting" rates of minority and younger homes -- referring to the percentage of households for which no usable ratings data was collected -- including a recent week when the data for 18 percent of their homes was faulty. Fault rates can occur for a number of reasons, sometimes as simple as viewers forgetting to activate their people meters when they turn on the television.
"The larger the sample, the more faulting," Dyer said. "[Nielsen has] to do something about it, and we're not seeing that happening."
Nielsen delayed the June 2 official rollout of LPMs after hearing complaints by 17 major media companies nationwide (including Post-Newsweek Stations, a subsidiary of The Washington Post Co., which owns six TV stations) and all of Washington's major broadcast stations.
These groups want Nielsen to wait until the LPM system is accredited by the Media Rating Council, an association of television, radio and advertising agencies that serves as a ratings watchdog agency for the television and radio industries.