Bostonians ax People Meters

Nets drop Nielsen service subscription rather than pay for new system

BOSTON — Beantown was the site of another American Revolution this year, but this one was strictly about television.

Nielsen Media Research chose the nation’s sixth-largest market to debut its People Meter ratings system during the May sweeps. The city reacted as it has in the past to things it didn’t like — it rebelled.

Every major network affiliate dropped its subscription to the Nielsen service rather than pay for the People Meter technology, which local broadcasters are convinced is an inaccurate and seriously flawed system.

The devices, which attach to televisions and are activated by viewers, have been in use for national ratings since 1987, but had never been used to measure local ratings in the country’s 210 TV markets until Nielsen began testing the meters last year in Boston.

For nearly a year, the People Meters were tested along with the written-diary system that has been used in local markets. The results, in some cases, were stunning.

“The numbers are all over the place,” Adrienne Lotoski, research director for ABC affil WCVB, told the Boston Herald last spring. “You’re seeing differences ranging anywhere from 15% to 20% less, to sometimes as much as 40% (less).”

Also raising the ire of the locals was the increase in Nielsen subscription fees for the People Meter system, by as much as $100,000 annually. Nielsen counters that the People Meters are more accurate, even though the technology costs more.

The boycott that started in late April is still going strong. But all of Boston’s major commercial television stations are still doing business without any Nielsen numbers.

Ed Goldman, general manager for Boston’s Viacom properties WBZ (a CBS affil) and WSBK (UPN), calls the People Meters “an evaluation system that doesn’t work, and in fact does just the opposite. It’s abusive, and we have no choice but to disregard it.” WCVB G.M. Paul La Camera says, “We’re functioning quite well without our overnights or the former ratings books. It’s been very exciting and much less disruptive or volatile than we’d imagined.”

He compared his station’s ratings withdrawal to “any other addiction. You feel a little healthier with each passing day.”

PBS affiliate WGBH recently broke ranks to join the small cadre of local Nielsen subscribers that include most local cable signals, a couple of New Hampshire stations and a Spanish-lingo station.

Nielsen has taken a conciliatory attitude toward its Boston rebels.

“We are looking beyond Boston,” spokeswoman Karen Kratz says. “We haven’t announced any other markets that will begin using the People Meters, but we expect to before the end of the year.” The plan is to expand People Meters into nine other markets, she adds.

“Of course, we wish we’d had everyone in Boston signed up by now,” Kratz says. “It’s an emotional time for everybody, but we’re definitely confident we’ll get other clients in Boston. We’ve got the most advanced technology known in that marketplace now.”