One month into a controversial new system of measuring Washington area TV audiences, the numbers continue to bear out early indications that the new technology is bad news for local broadcasters. Station officials are expressing concern, and today on Capitol Hill the system will come under congressional scrutiny.
The results from Nielsen Media Research's Local People Meter system reflect ratings declines, some of them dramatic, for all of Washington's major broadcast outlets when compared with numbers recorded last July using the previous method. LPM was launched June 30, replacing a system that relied on household meters and written paper diaries.
Most distressing for station executives is that some of the biggest drops were registered by local newscasts, a big source of advertising dollars. Last year Washington's broadcast stations collectively billed $579 million to advertisers.
Station executives continue to argue that the new system is undercounting minority and younger viewers, whose households are recording high fault rates -- referring to the percentage of homes in the LPM sample for which no usable ratings data were recorded. Fault rates can occur for a number of reasons, including viewers forgetting to activate the meters when they turn on their televisions.
Duffy Dyer, vice president and general manager of Fox-owned WTTG (Channel 5), said July's ratings indicate that Nielsen has not yet addressed the faulting situation. "The problem has only grown, and the problem has only received lip service" from Nielsen, he said.
Michael Jack, president and general manager of WRC (Channel 4), would not discuss the accuracy of LPMs vs. the old system but said, "They certainly have some room to improve."
Nielsen spokeswoman Karen Gyimesi acknowledged that faulting is still a problem but said Nielsen has stepped up its efforts to bring the rate down, including increasing "monetary incentives" for participating homes and hiring a "more diverse" staff to train participants.
"I don't want you to think our samples are perfect," Gyimesi said. "There's always room for improvement."
The downtrend in ratings follows the pattern seen in markets where the system has been in place for a while. Broadcasting and Cable magazine reported in May that in Los Angeles, where LPMs were launched last July, broadcast station ratings were off 10 to 15 percent. Boston, which in 2002 became the first market to launch LPMs, reported large declines at first but has seen some stabilization recently, the magazine said.
Today Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) will chair a Commerce Committee hearing on a bill that would strengthen the power of the Media Rating Council, an association of TV, radio and advertising agencies that serves as a ratings watchdog for the TV and radio industries. The council has yet to accredit LPMs in Washington and four other markets where the system is being used.
Under the bill, sponsored by Sens. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.), Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) and George Allen (R-Va.), Media Rating Council accreditation would be required before any TV ratings service could be implemented.
The July LPM readings show large drops in viewership for the area's 5 to 7 a.m. newscast; those broadcasts have been a growth area for stations as commutes have grown longer. Only Gannett-owned WUSA (Channel 9) showed improvement in the time period.
In the early-evening newscasts, all four stations -- WRC, WTTG, WUSA and WJLA (Channel 7) -- had at least one double-digit drop. (All but WTTG have newscasts at both 5 and 6 p.m.) The late-night newscast results were mixed, with WRC's ratings up 22 percent at 11 p.m., while WJLA was down 6 percent and WUSA was down 19 percent. WTTG's 10 p.m. news showed a 12 percent increase from last year.
Overall in July, WRC was the top-rated newscast in all time slots where it faces competition from the other stations.
Gyimesi said the cable networks and some of the smaller stations, including the Spanish-language networks and PBS affiliates, are seeing bumps in their relatively small audiences.
"The broadcast affiliates generally dominated the airwaves over the last decade," Gyimesi said. "When you move to an electronic measurement you get a better representation of where viewers are going."
According to Nielsen, some of the top-rated cable networks, including TNT, MTV, AMC and Lifetime, are chalking up double-digit increases in audiences in some of the same time periods where the broadcast stations are declining.
The new meters, which are wired in about 600 Washington area homes, replaced two former methods of measuring ratings. The old household meters provided Nielsen with only the basic television status: whether the set was on or off, what times it was turned on and what channel was being watched. Nielsen augmented that sample during sweeps months by asking larger groups to fill out one-week viewing diaries, which provided demographic data about viewers.
People meters are designed to yield immediate demographics. Participants, who have provided their demographic information to Nielsen, log on using a special remote, which then records their TV habits minute by minute.