It takes a while in Western New York for television viewers to change the channel on their favorite newscasts, according to those TV executives who monitor ratings daily.
“Locally, you might not make as swift a judgment,” said Chris Musial, general manager at WIVB-TV, Channel 4. “Locally, you take a little bit more time. People here feel like they get to know their newscasters, their reporters. But it takes a while to get to that point where a viewer feels comfortable. In this Northeast post-industrial area, people really cling and hold tight,” said Musial.
Channel 4, owned by Lin Television Corp., is one of three Buffalo stations that subscribe to the Nielsen ratings, a report card for the television industry introduced by market analyst Arthur Nielsen in 1950. Nielsen ratings monitor viewing habits based on self-recorded diaries and/or television set meters. The ratings not only reflect a program’s popularity, but also indicate audience demographics.
“Ultimately, a show stays on the air based on ratings,” said Nick Magnini, general manager for WUTV Channel 29/WNYO Channel 49. “There is no other reason: Ratings translate into revenue. If you have high ratings, you’re airing a product that more people want to watch. The higher a show’s rating, the more ad revenue it draws.”
Magnini, Musial and Jim Toellner, general manager of WGRZ-TV Channel 2, owned by Gannett Broadcasting, subscribe to the Nielsen television ratings service. The accuracy of TV ratings may be debated by station general managers, but when it comes to Nielsen ratings, all three agree on one thing: The service is not cheap. In fact, its exact cost is guarded as closely as a news anchor’s age.
Toellner and Musial each put the annual cost for the ratings service in the six-figure range. Other industry sources indicate the Nielsen price tag is at least $500,000.
“It’s one of our biggest expenses, but you have to have it,” said Magnini. “Nielsen is the accepted currency that all media buyers want to see and hear. They’re a necessary evil. It’s the cost of doing business.
“We’re owned by Sinclair [Broadcast Group], which has a lot of market force,” Magnini added. “I’m sure the reason the other stations don’t have Nielsen is the financial cost, no matter what they tell you.”
Stations that do not subscribe to Nielsen ratings are not allowed to quote them in promotions or use them as a basis to sell advertising, Magnini said.
WKBW-TV Channel 7, owned by Granite Broadcasting Corp., does not subscribe to Nielsen, confirmed News Director Polly Van Doren.
“It’s a corporate policy in our company,” Van Doren said, adding that Channel 7 used Media Audit.
WBBZ-TV, owned locally by Phil Arno, is not a Nielsen subscriber, according to John Di- Sciullo, station director of promotion and production. WBBZ contracts with Houston-based Media Audit to survey the Buffalo market by telephone twice a year, DiSciullo said.
The most recent survey of 770 adults in Erie and Niagara counties was conducted from August 14 to Oct. 14. Participants were selected at random, DiSciullo said, adding that results indicated a cumulative weekly average audience of 130,000, a median age of 51 and a median income of $43,012.
Nielsen ratings include the eight counties of Western New York plus McKean and Potter counties in Pennsylvania. In selected households, a Nielsen meter must be connected to every TV set. Households are on an 18-month cycle, according to Toellner. Every four months, new households are introduced to replace the ones that cycle out.
This set-meter gathering system launched in Buffalo in 2000. Information is delivered daily to subscribing stations. Four times a year, diaries are completed by Nielsen-selected viewers, who record the shows they watch in addition to relevant demographic information.
The Buffalo market, explained one station’s research director, skews older than the national average.
“On a national network basis, the primary focus of most advertisers are adults ages 18 to 49,” said Robert Gallivan of Channel 4. “Advertisers in this market tend to target ages 25 to 54 and even 35 to 64 – the baby boomers.”
The market, according to Toellner, is not only older – it is driven by news.
“This is a market that has very high news viewership across the three stations,” said Toellner. “Those numbers in any other market are sometimes half that size. It’s not like Atlanta, where you have a very transient population, and people are not invested in local news. Here, whether you’re in Cheektowaga, Hamburg or Niagara Falls, it all has relevance for you.”
Ratings are important for the business side of TV, Toellner said.
“Virtually all media is sold based on audience size whether it’s newspaper, radio, television or Internet,” Toellner said. “It’s not just the size of the audience, it’s the quality as perceived by the advertisers.”
As an example, Toellner pointed to NBC’s Thursday night lineup of comedies: “30 Rock,” “Up All Night,” “The Office” and “Parks and Recreation.”
“They are not the highest- rated prime time shows,” he said, “Yet they come very close to getting the highest ad rates because the people who watch them are considered by advertisers to be a high-quality audience [high income and education].”
Nielsen made headlines twice in December with two business moves, one involving radio and the other social media:
On Dec. 17, Nielsen revealed plans to create a Nielsen-Twitter TV rating by measuring how much traffic on Twitter various TV programs receive. This means networks and advertisers will gain almost instant results on programming popularity.
Nielsen announced on Dec. 18 its purchase of radio ratings company Arbitron for $1.26 billion.
“There are other surveys, but Nielsen is the best,” said Magnini. “It’s not 100 percent perfect, but nothing compares to Nielsen. Nielsen is the IBM of the business. They’ve been around forever.”