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Brian Stimson of The Skanner
Published: 08 July 2009

The Nielsen Corporation is rolling out new method to measure television viewing habits in the Portland market.
New automated people meters will make it easier for participating families – and for the nation's largest sampler of viewing habits – to find out which people are watching what programs. Nielsen, the world's largest ratings company, has been using People Meters since 1987 as a more reliable method of tracking viewing habits than paper diaries.
But as Nielsen could tell television networks and advertisers what was being watched, they couldn't tell them exactly who was watching. Until now.
The new technology – already in use by Oregon Nielsen families -- now allows Nielsen to program the type of person in a household watching television. The viewer will preprogram their gender and age in the box and then push their preprogrammed button every time they tune in, says Field Technician Hector Huerta. Nielsen tracks racial demographics of their sample audiences separately from the automated, in-home boxes.
"If I was watching TV, I'd go and hit button 3," said Huerta, during a media demonstration. "This equipment knows that I, Hector, 34-year-old man, am watching whatever is on TV. And this will capture anything that is on TV, whether it is a channel or DVR … And if my whole family was watching I'd hit buttons one, two and three."
Visitors can be added to the roster and the equipment wakes up and turns off on its own with the TV.
In the Portland market, which includes 28 counties in Oregon and Southwest Washington, Nielsen tracks about 1.1 million viewers by sampling 600 test households. Most test households keep the People Meters in their homes for about two years.
Test households are selected randomly from Census block groups in a geographic area. Once selected, households have the choice to accept or decline to be Nielsen families.
Monica Gil, vice president for public affairs, says one of the biggest impediments the company has in penetrating minority markets is a lack of Nielsen's name recognition and a fear that it will be more trouble than its worth.
"It's not that ethnic minorities aren't part of our sample, it's that we're harder to recruit," Gil said. "Brand awareness amongst communities of color is very, very low. I know. My mom's an immigrant and if someone from Nielsen knocks on her door she's going to say 'no,' and I work there."
As Nielsen has unveiled the technologically advanced People Meters in major television markets, there have been critics. In 2004, when the new meters were first used, ratings dropped for Black audiences in some time slots. A New York Times article from July 15, 2004 said several television series with a high Black audience – such as "One on One" and "The Parkers" – saw ratings drops of 30 percent under the new system. Nielsen says the new boxes more accurately record real viewing habits. Paper records often don't reflect the reality of television viewing in the 21st century, which includes far more channels and technology viewing options than ever before.
"What Nielsen is trying to do is to recruit more ethnic minorities," said Maria Rojo de Steffey, a consultant for Nielsen and former city staffer. "Our programs might not be reflected unless we are willing to be represented in full force by Nielsen."

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