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TV Note: Ratings systems testing portable people meters

Tuesday, May 14, 2002

In a world with hundreds of television channels, figuring out who's watching what is about to get easier.

For decades, viewing habits have been tracked through devices attached to TVs and radios. Thousands of households also kept paper diaries during the crucial television "sweeps" periods in February, May, July and November.

That low-tech system is getting a major upgrade.

The two major companies that produce television and radio ratings are testing next-generation technology that would give advertisers the data they need to decide where to spend their billions.

The most promising is the "portable people meter," a beeper-like device being developed by Arbitron, which logs programming seen or heard anytime, anywhere by whomever is wearing it.

People need to do nothing more than wear it during the day and place it in a home docking station each night so data can be transmitted to Arbitron.

The device uses sensitive microphones to pick up codes embedded in television, radio and even streaming Internet broadcasts -- and it includes a motion detector to verify that someone is wearing it.

"With the portable people meter, we know that you carried it and what it was exposed to," said Thom Mocarsky, a spokesman for Arbitron, which compiles radio ratings.

With diaries, he said, Arbitron has to guess whether a blank diary page means "they didn't listen to radio or forgot to log in."

Arbitron just completed the first phase of testing, strapping meters on 1,500 testers in Philadelphia. The results were more comprehensive than data collected by current means -- in large part because viewing and listening outside the home was included.

There was also more information on viewing and listening by young males -- a key demographic group for advertisers -- who are notoriously sloppy about recording their habits in diaries, Mocarsky said.

Nielsen Media, which provides television ratings, is watching the tests closely, with an eye toward forming a joint venture with Arbitron to roll out the technology nationally.

Nielsen is testing its own meter to monitor similar embedded codes. Unlike the Arbitron device, the Nielsen meter attaches to individual television sets.

Both systems could become essential as digital television eventually replaces the analog technology now in use.

"Digital changes the way television is transmitted, so the channel-based measuring system goes away," said Nielsen spokesman Jack Loftus. "Everyone is going to encoding, and the race is on to see whose code is better."

Advertisers are carefully monitoring both prototypes in their search for more accurate ratings data.

Currently, national and local television ratings are measured by Nielsen Media Research using electronic devices supplemented four times a year by paper diaries.

Nationally, 5,000 randomly selected homes are equipped with a meter on each television in the house to log which channels are watched. A second measurement is made by assigning each household member a separate button on the device, which is turned on and off when the person starts and stops watching television.

Detailed demographic statistics for various age groups are gleaned from the data.

Radio ratings are collected entirely using paper diaries.

The new personal people meters, which likely won't be used nationally for three to five years, also promise a solution to the thorny issue of tracking how people use personal video recorders to time-shift TV programs and zap advertising.

(Gary Gentile, Associated Press)

Karn to host 'Feud'

Richard Karn, who played Tim Allen's sidekick on "Home Improvement," will become the new host of "Family Feud."

Karn is replacing Louie Anderson as the game show enters its fourth year in syndication, said FremantleMedia Productions North America, which produces the show.

Karn played Al on the long-running ABC sitcom "Home Improvement," which starred Allen as a family man and host of a fix-it show.

He'll join "Family Feud" when the show resumes production early this summer. Anderson's production company and FremantleMedia will continue to work together on developing projects, FremantleMedia said in a release.

(Associated Press)

'Grace' moves to Monday

ABC Family's half-hour series "State of Grace" will move from its Friday night time slot to Mondays beginning June 3.

The coming-of-age series set in the South in the 1960s will air back-to-back episodes from 8 to 9 p.m. Most weeks, an original episode will be followed by a repeat, although on June 3 two originals will air. A marathon of reruns is scheduled for June 2 from 2 to 8 p.m.

(Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor)

Channel surfing

Game show bride Darva Conger and Olympic gold medal gymnast Olga Korbut have been added to the list of contenders on "Celebrity Boxing 2," a slugfest among the nation's most identifiable personalities, airing May 22 (8:30 p.m.) on Fox. John Wayne Bobbitt and Joey Buttafuoco will square off as the "tabloid titans," and sports stars William "The Refrigerator" Perry and Manute Bol will put up their dukes. Two other competitors will be announced later ... After 11 years, E! has canceled "Talk Soup." The last original installment airs tomorrow.

(R.O.)

Local on TV

Pittsburgh resident Mark Spagnolo will appear on "Hollywood Squares" (7:30 p.m., KDKA) as part of "Tournament of Champions Week" beginning tomorrow. He won $105,094 in a previous appearance on the show.

(R.O.)

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