People Meters and other devices

The use of people meters is not without its problems. Just because people push buttons does not mean they are looking at television. Also, people are not always totally reliable (especially children and teenagers) in pushing buttons, and there is likely wear out factor with some individuals; that is, after a year or so people may consider it too much of a chore to cooperate fully. Audience measures derived from the use of people meters are somewhat lower for the more popular shows compared with measures obtained from diaries, probably because of the halo effect. For example, the “Cosby Show” rating was about 10 percent lower when people meters were used compared with diaries. This is an important difference given that a 30 second spot on the “Cosby Show” costs about $380,000.

Other Devices: The growth in the use of VCRs and remote control devices also causes TV audience measurement problems. So far the effects of such high tech products are not incorporated into audience rating. There are two major ways in which these effects (called zapping) impact ratings. The first is when a VCR is used to record a program and the “fast forwarding: function is used to avoid the commercials during the playback. It is estimated that such viewers “zip” past more than 50 percent of the commercials.

The second type of zapping has to do with the use of a remote control device to mute commercials or switch away from them completely. Since it is predicted that VCR and remote control penetration will soon reach 60 – 70 percent of all US television homes, zapping will become a significant problem. After all, the possibility of watching a TV program without commercials is an attractive one.

One company has developed a passive and an active meter in an attempt to answer the question, who’s watching television? The former is a heat and body mass sensor that is continuously activated when a television set is on. It measures the number of times people enter and leave a room and is designed to tell whether a TV that is turned on is playing to an empty room. The active meter provides regular on-screen prompts by asking viewers to identify themselves by using a hand held device.

The passive meter can distinguish between people and pets (based on body mass and seating pattern). It requests the active meter to ask for the ID of anyone entering the room and records the exit time of anyone who exits and does not sign out. The company also has a TV tuning meter that is accurate up to 1/10th of a second and can track some 138 channels. But the above system can only count those present – not identify them. And no system can tell if and when individual audience members are watching TV; for example, all the family is watching TV except for the husband, who is reading the newspaper.