Arbitron Ups The Stakes On Portable Video Ratings

If this month’s upfronts proved anything, it’s that viewers today have more options than ever for viewing their favorite shows, and those options don’t necessarily require being at home. So as the audience migrates from the couch, so too must the methods for measuring them. The question now is, who can best provide those ratings?

Nielsen Media Research last month outlined ambitious plans to develop new TV services to measure viewing that takes place outside the home, integrating mobile devices like iPods and cell phones. But both the technologies and timetable for implementing those plans are vague (Nielsen says it will provide more clarity next month). Jumping into the gap is Arbitron, which hopes to beat Nielsen to the punch by applying its up-and-running Portable People Meter technology to those services and others, such as coincidental ratings studies, minute-by-minute ratings and TV program audience flow reports.

Arbitron is currently surveying TV station executives around the country to gauge their interest in the services, said Jay Guyther, Arbitron’s svp, global marketing for the PPM. “We hope to have a business plan in the next 45 to 60 days.”

There’s one caveat: For now, Arbitron does not plan to compete head-to-head with Nielsen in the core business of providing daily TV ratings. “We think the interest is in the ancillary services,” like out-of-home, said Guyther.

The lack of adequate out-of-home ratings has been a been a sore spot with media companies for years. Recent ratings in Houston, where Arbitron has been testing its PPM service for TV and radio for two years, explain why. The numbers show that more than half of men 18-34 viewing CBS’ coverage of the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s Men’s Basketball Tournament final came from out-of-home sources.

One TV research executive who’s been briefed on the Arbitron plans to measure out-of-home viewing said, “The audio codes they use to pick up viewing will pass through a phone or an iPod as well as a TV or radio or just about anything.” He added that his company is “very interested” in the plan.

If Arbitron does go ahead, it would mark the company’s return to TV audience research in the U.S. after departing from the field 13 years ago, when it shuttered its local TV ratings service, leaving Nielsen as the sole provider of ratings for TV stations and networks. However, Arbitron has established PPM-based ratings systems in some foreign markets, including Quebec, Canada, Belgium and the U.K.

Arbitron has been planning a return to the U.S. TV measurement business for years, pinning its hopes until recently on a possible venture with Nielsen (owned by Adweek parent VNU) to measure local TV audiences using its PPM technology. But three months ago, Nielsen decided not to proceed with the venture, opting to continue measuring local station audiences with its own technologies, including local people meters in larger markets, diaries in smaller markets and a combination of meters and diaries in mid-size markets, with some new techniques to be unveiled next month, according to a letter Nielsen president Susan Whiting sent to clients last week. Whiting wrote Nielsen was “on track to begin communicating more details” about those plans in mid-June. The company has talked about replacing diaries in some markets with small meters that would be mailed to and from Nielsen “families.”

Meanwhile, after Nielsen’s decision not to partner with it on local TV ratings, Arbitron said it would proceed with its plan to roll out its PPM service as the next-generation radio ratings system, replacing its outdated diary-based service in the top 50 markets by 2010. Two weeks ago, it gained some traction on the station side when CBS Radio signed up for the new radio service, the first major station group to do so. Many ad agencies and holding companies support the service and have already signed on, including The Interpublic Group, Omnicom’s OMD and PHD, Publicis Groupe’s Starcom MediaVest and ZenithOptimedia, and WPP Group.

Still, Arbitron’s bid for new TV business is not a slam dunk. According to researchers, there are still questions about the basic PPM service, such as whether Arbitron can recruit representative samples of markets being measured and whether people on the panels will clip the small meters to their belts and carry them around all day like they’re supposed to. “There are skeptics, and it’s not quite as seamless and as passive as Arbitron would lead you to believe,” said a researcher at a major network.

And while agencies strongly support Arbitron’s PPM radio initiative, some shops question the company’s wisdom of trying to expand to TV. “I certainly can’t rule it out without having more information about exactly how they’re going about it, but I’d really rather see them concentrate on their core measurement area right now,” said Susan Nathan, svp, director of media knowledge, IPG’s Universal McCann. “They have to build a huge PPM service for radio. That’s probably where they need to concentrate their efforts for the moment. They’ve got a big rollout plan; that’s got to be costly.”

Maribeth Papuga, MediaVest’s svp, director of local broadcast, said that Arbitron should be “applauded for putting this stuff out there” to the extent that it helps the industry get a better read on certain audience metrics. “There’s no question we don’t want to wait forever to get some sort of out-of-home measurement,” she said.

At the same time, the move raises a lot of questions. Data warehousing is a big one, Papuga said, “for us to be able to compile the data and put it into some organized and accessible mechanism instead of raw data getting dumped somewhere.”

It’s always better to have a backup system to serve as a reality check on the accuracy of ratings being used to buy and sell ads with, said Papuga. But there’s a limit to how many ratings services clients can afford—a lesson Arbitron learned when it fled the TV business last time around.