As Nielsen Warms To Portable People Meter Tests, Arbitron Explores Single-Source, Other Media

The advertising and media industries took another step closer to the development of a single-source system that would measure both TV and radio audiences - and maybe someday - other media and even product usage. Radio researcher Arbitron's efforts to mount a TV and radio ratings system based on its promising portable people meter (PPM) technology took a positive turn as on-again/off-again partner Nielsen Media Research made noises of being on the program again.

Nielsen, which has been inexplicably circumspect in its endorsement of the PPM, Tuesday made a relatively positive statement following a successful test of ways to improve consumer response rates, or the percentage of people who are willing to become part of the PPM sample. Initial tests were positive and Nielsen and Arbitron are now working to see whether the numbers hold and whether a high enough percentage of consumers will stick with the PPM. More results on turnover are due in the first quarter of 2004.

Arbitron is the leader in the radio market measurement business but needs Nielsen's support to introduce a radio and TV measurement in the U.S. Nielsen has an exclusive option to license the PPM in for TV audience measurement in the U.S. By combining their resources, the two companies theoretically could build a superior audience measurement system, with a large sample base, that would simultaneously measure both TV and radio and potentially other media, as well.



But even after a year of results from a PPM test in Philadelphia, Nielsen was taking a wait-and-see approach to any joint venture with Arbitron. The companies signed an agreement in June 2000 on a series of tests.

While Nielsen executives said they so far are happy with the tests, they said the proof would come if and when they are convinced the turnover is acceptable and the rates could be maintained in an efficient and cost-effective manner. Turnover could theoretically be less because of the simple nature of carrying or wearing the PPM like a pager. But fallout can happen when a consumer moves or dies. Nielsen wants to understand acceptance and continuance rates before it moves ahead.

"The question is, can you sustain it," said Nielsen spokesman Jack Loftus. Among the other questions that Nielsen wants answered before making a decision would be whether it can be proved across more than one market, how it picks up signals and what it does when they potentially cross each other within a consumer's home. PPMs pick up signals encoded in a broadcast to determine viewing.

"All of these things we need to test and we're working with Arbitron to understand it," Loftus said.

"They have not pulled back in any way. If anything, they have increased their level of involvement," said Steve Morris, president-CEO of Arbitron.

A key sticking point holding up Nielsen's decision on whether to proceed with a PPM joint venture with Arbitron is Nielsen's desire to field yet another test of the PPM in a second market, and one that has a high percentage of Hispanics. Arbitron's Morris said it is possible a second market test could go forward as early as next year. A twin panel in Philadelphia, the PPM's first test market, is already on the drawing boards.

At the same time, Arbitron is moving ahead with early stages of a single-source system that would tie media usage to product purchases. This system would use PPMs to track media use and small handheld product scanners to tally purchases. That would be a boon to the media industry and especially to advertisers and agencies that have long sought a single-source measurement system.

Arbitron is not currently working with Nielsen on this use of the PPM.

Arbitron spokesman Thom Mocarsky said the PPM has great potential as a centerpiece in a single-source panel of consumers. It wouldn't be a classic ratings service but instead help marketers understand the interaction between media and consumers and purchases.

It's reminiscent of ScanAmerica, a system that Arbitron tried to get working in the late 1980s and very early 1990s. Back then, the system was armed with set-top people meters and scanning wands but it was an idea ahead of its time. Now Arbitron hopes the same type of idea, with better technology and more flexible across all media, can succeed in the 21st century. Mocarsky said Arbitron has begun to show the proof of concept although it hasn't yet moved ahead with more than that. Arbitron hopes to get marketers and other research groups on board to take full use of the concept.

Meanwhile, Arbitron also is developing plans for ways of augmenting a potential new single-source measurement service to include measurement of print media. Initially, Arbitron would utilize an old-fashioned research method - paper diaries - to record magazine and newspaper usage, but the company said it also is exploring new technologies for capturing print media exposure electronically.

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