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ON TELEVISION, METERS WILL UPDATE THE FACE OF RATINGS

"Dear Diary: My favorite station is WGRZ because I love Tom Jolls."

When Channel 7 General Manager Bill Ransom read that comment in a Nielsen diary, his confidence in the way local programs are rated took quite a hit.

Jolls, of course, worked for WKBW-TV, not WGRZ-TV, for decades before retiring last summer.

But, then again, all local officials have their own tale of Nielsen absurdity.

Channel 29 General Manager Don Moran was flabbergasted this November when Nielsen determined that no one watched any of Fox's NFL games at 1 p.m. Sunday when they were played opposite Bills games. In years past, the games would get several ratings points.

Even a competitor was shocked by that Nielsen claim.

"I've never seen that any place that I've been, and I've sold advertising for 60 stations," said Terrill Weiss, local sales manager of WB-49. Weiss was equally stunned that Nielsen claimed that nobody watched "The Nanny" or "NewsRadio" on his station.

Moran also was startled to see that a bass fishing special on Fox that received a 2 household rating received a 7 rating for women age 18-34, more than twice the rating it received with men that age.

"You'd have to have four women in each household watching" for that to be accurate, Moran said.

Those tales demonstrate that Nielsen ratings can be a little like fish stories -- the size of the audience can be absurdly inflated. Or deflated.

But locally, that's about to change.

The sweeps period that begins Thursday will be the last one in which 220 diaries out of 400 sent out by Nielsen will be the sole way audiences will be measured for advertisers.

Starting April 1, Nielsen will measure local household audiences by meters installed in the homes of 300 households. The quarterly sweeps period won't go away. They will continue to help calculate demographics by using the results from meters and making them consistent with the diaries in a percentage formula called a Demographic Index.

At a cost as high as $500,000 a year for stations -- three times as high as stations are paying for the present system -- Buffalo will become the 48th market to have a nightly Nielsen rating.

Area general managers and researchers are looking at the experiences in other markets to make predictions about what this will mean to Buffalo television.

"Everybody is going to go up, because viewing is under-reported in the diaries," said Moran. "Some of the long-held thinking about the popularity of certain television events or sporting events is likely to change."

The general consensus is:

Ratings will increase throughout the broadcast day, with the daytime and late-night getting the biggest boosts. Why? Typically, diary holders don't run to their books at 12:35 a.m. after watching David Letterman or Jay Leno.

The viewing habits of the African-American community will be more accurately measured by meters. That won't be hard, since it is considered one of the hardest to measure. In fact, Ransom recalls one survey in which Nielsen suggested there were no African-Americans watching television.

"They (Nielsen) definitely do have a harder time reaching different minority communities," said Channel 2 General Manager Darryll Green.

Fox affiliate WUTV, WB affiliate WNYO, UPN affiliate WNGS, and NBC affiliate WGRZ have the most to gain, traditional powers like CBS affiliate WIVB and ABC affiliate WKBW have the most to lose.

That's because generally, older established stations like WIVB and WKBW benefit by the use of diaries, while stations like WUTV and WNYO, which attract younger viewers, benefit from meters, because those viewers aren't as likely to fill out diaries or even get their hands on them.

"We expect it to result in a more level playing field," said WUTV's Moran.

The meters definitely will be a more accurate way of measuring audiences because they automatically rate programs, and the local 300 homes that are wired will be more reflective of the community than the diaries. The diaries that are sent out are intended to reflect the make-up of the community, but might not return that way because only about half of the 400 household diaries are considered usable and that may inflate some audience groups over others. Though some metered homes may not be able to be measured because of technical malfunctions or people moving, the percentage will be much lower than with the diaries.

The area of disagreement among local officials is how much the meters will change things. Naturally, the opinions can be a bit self-serving. Remember, though there may be more ratings points under meters, that doesn't guarantee there will be more advertising revenue out there for the parties to share.

WUTV researcher Bob Gallivan has put together a sizable packet for an advertiser presentation, called "Measuring the New Millennium." In it, he explains that the diaries that have calculated local audiences during sweeps months full of big events in the four quarterly periods programmed by the networks typically underestimate the audience for regular programming and the younger viewer.

He estimates that the switch to meters will increase viewing by as little as 11 percent from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. to as much as 92 percent in late night. The news blocks at 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. will go up 15 percent and 37 percent, respectively, though the extra viewers might not be watching news.

His prediction for prime time is that WIVB will stay flat, WGRZ will go up 11 percent, WKBW will go up 19 percent, WUTV will go up 33 percent and WB (which has a much smaller rating now than anyone else) will go up 140 percent. There were no estimates for WNGS, the UPN affiliate that may be owned by Channel 7's company by the time the meter program begins. The meters certainly will help WNGS, which hasn't averaged a measureable rating.

"It should have the most dramatic effect on us in the marketplace," said Terrill Weiss of WB-49.

Gallivan also notes that if Buffalo follows the pattern of four recently metered markets, the dominant newscasts experience a sharp decline in news share, especially at 6 p.m.

His prediction for Buffalo at 6 p.m.?

WNYO will go up 30 percent and WUTV will go up 20 percent for its no-news programming, while third place news station WGRZ will go up 8 percent, and WIVB and WKBW will go down 20 percent in audience share.

"People think they watch the news every day," said Gallivan, explaining why the diaries overestimate news audience.

According to Gallivan's scenario, WIVB and WKBW still will have ratings at 6 p.m. that are twice as high as WUTV, and WGRZ will still have less than half the audience of its rivals.

In Gallivan's view, ratings for established talk shows will decline, and ratings for sitcoms, newer programs, NFL games and afternoon kids programming will increase.

Of course, Channel 4 General Manager Lou Verruto isn't quite as quick to accept Gallivan's or anyone's else's predictions.

"Nobody knows how it is going to affect anybody," said Verruto. "Every market is different."

Gallivan concedes that Buffalo is different, noting that the Buffalo market is decidedly older than others. While 72 percent of the nation is under 50, the figure is only 67 percent in Buffalo.

Verruto, who was working in Hartford when that market went to meters, did have one prediction: The ratings for "Wheel of Fortune" and "Jeopardy," huge hits for Channel 7 for years, will suffer.

"In most markets, they settle in between 60 percent and 70 percent of where they are now," said Verruto.

He doesn't expect any seismic changes in local news. Channel 7 won the last sweeps over Channel 4.

Surprise, surprise, Channel 7's Ransom disagrees with Verruto on the decline of "Wheel of Fortune" and "Jeopardy." But he concedes the move to meters will change things.

"I think it will have impact on Channel 4 and Channel 7," said Ransom. "We will get a truer (measure) of WGRZ. There will be a lot of ratings points floating around the market come April. It is good for the market. It is not the best system, but it is a lot better than the diaries."

Green, Channel 2's general manager, knows that meters can't hurt his station's low-rated newscasts. But he isn't counting on big changes, either.

"We're looking forward to meters," said Green, "but we can't hang our hat on them. Everyday we have to try and put out a good product."

How accurate does he believe the diaries have been that have placed Channel 2 so low in the news ratings and daytime?

"I don't believe they are accurate at all," said Green.

He laughed as he said it. Now he hopes the resulting changes from meters will help his station laugh all the way to the bank.

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