MRC To Vote On L.A. People Meters, Canada Okays Portable Ones

In a development that is likely to either stir or quell the dissent surrounding Nielsen's local people meters, the Media Rating Council next week is expected to hold a meeting of its Television Committee to vote on whether to accredit the Los Angeles people meter service. The vote follows the release of an MRC audit of the Los Angeles service by Ernst & Young--which executives said showed positive results and did not reveal some of the glaring discrepancies that led the MRC committee to withhold accreditation for the New York people meters, following an audit of that system.

"There's always going to be some technical issues that need to be addressed, but in terms of how this matches up with other audits, there's nothing that should prevent accreditation," said an executive who is familiar with the results. A vote to grant accreditation would help assuage growing community and political pressure against Nielsen--which introduced the system, as it did in New York, without the MRC's stamp of approval and in the midst of a heavy PR, advertising, and lobbying effort by News Corp.-backed opposition group Don't Count Us Out.

A vote to withhold accreditation would be another major setback for Nielsen, which has retained its own ad agency, Burrell, to develop a campaign to win support for the new ratings service.

Meanwhile, some interested parties, including two U.S. senators, Charles Schumer of New York and Barbara Boxer of California, have been raising questions about why Nielsen is moving forward with local people meters when a potentially superior research methodology--Arbitron's portable people meters--are being tested in the United States and deployed in Canada.

Nielsen recently announced plans to merge its Canadian operations with Canada's industry-owned BBM ratings service. While the two organizations will continue to manage and operate conventional ratings systems in most markets, the BBM Wednesday officially announced plans to begin using the portable people meters in two of Canada's biggest markets, Quebec and Montreal, beginning this fall. BBM, which licensed the portable people meter from Arbitron, said the system's ratings would become the official ratings for buying and selling commercial airtime on French-language TV outlets in the markets.

"We believe the PPM is the only way we can keep pace with emerging media technologies and the changes in the viewing and listening habits of our television audiences," said Jim MacLeod, president-CEO of BBM Canada. "Soon, television meters will no longer do the job if they remain hardwired to receivers in panelist homes. We must go with the viewers to capture, passively and automatically, every exposure to a growing number of TV and media appliances found in and out of the home."

As promising as the PPMs may be, some critics claim there are still some technical issues that need to be overcome, including cooperation rates. Nielsen, which has a right to use the system for TV ratings in the United States, has been testing the system with Arbitron, and the two companies recently announced a breakthrough bringing the PPM's cooperation rates up to a par with conventional TV ratings meters.

The BBM's decision to adopt PPM data as the official television ratings comes after a full year of rigorous testing and vetting by key industry groups, but the system is not without its consequences. The U.S. radio industry, for example, called on Arbitron to commission a study evaluating the economic impact the new system would have on radio's competitive position in the advertising marketplace. The main reason, which has nothing to do with the reliability of the PPMs per se, is that the meters--which simultaneously measure audience for TV and radio, and potentially other media--will begin factoring TV viewing in out-of-home locations, which significantly boosts audience impressions for TV outlets, while radio's delivery essentially remains the same. While the shift would be statistical, and not the result of genuine changes in media usage patterns, the radio industry is concerned that it will suffer by more accurate comparisons.

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