Prague, 5 February 1998 (RFE/RL) -- A device used in the United States since the 1970s to measure the popularity of television programs is starting to bring Central European broadcasters and advertisers a better understanding of their audiences.
Small electronic boxes known as "Peoplemeters" have been used to monitor the viewing habits of TV audiences across the Czech Republic for about seven months. Already, the system's minute-by-minute information has led Prague's private Nova-TV to change the way it charges advertisers for airtime.
"Peoplemeters" also have been used to measure national audiences in Poland for two years and in Hungary for five years. Researchers in Moscow, St. Petersburg and Sofia have used the box to study viewers in their cities for about two years.
In the United States, the device is better known as the "Nielsen Box" because of the company that conducts most industry studies on TV audiences there -- Nielsen Media Research. With the so-called "Nielsen ratings" forming the basis of TV advertising rates in most of North America, the device has become an important part of the economic infrastructure for private broadcasting.
By the end of 1997, Peoplemeters were being used in 52 countries worldwide -- including all of the markets where more than $100 million is spent on TV advertising each year. As advertising interests continue to push for global expansion of the system, the use of Peoplemeters is expected to become more widespread across Eastern Europe.
Gallup Media hopes to have the units in 1,200 households across Russia this year to study viewing habits on a national level. The UK-based Taylor-Nelson AGB plans to start using the boxes in Bucharest within the next three months. Tony Taylor, an European specialist at Taylor-Nelson's London office, told RFE/RL that his firm also hopes to conduct nationwide Peoplemeter studies in Romania by year end.
In the Czech Republic, 660 households with about 1,700 viewers are paid to take part in the research. The electronic boxes are placed in selected homes that form a representative sample of the country's demographics.
Panel members register by pressing buttons on a remote control unit every time they start and finish watching television. The Peoplemeter records how many minutes each channel has been viewed. More importantly, the remote control registration tells researchers the age, sex and education level of each viewer -- as well as the size of the community they live in.
In this way, Peoplemeters can measure the popularity of any TV program among 78 different groups of people within the Czech Republic. Such demographic detail is vital for advertisers who want to aim their commercials at specific target groups. Even more importantly, the Czech system gives advertisers almost immediate feedback on the percentage of people from a target group who actually watched a commercial -- a figure known as Gross Rating Points (GRP).
Prague's private NOVA-TV has taken advantage of the system's demographic detail in its own marketing efforts. Advertisers on NOVA-TV can now purchase a guaranteed number of Gross Rating Points for any target group. If the Peoplemeters show that a commercial didn't receive the guaranteed level of viewers, advertisers are given GRP credits to make up the difference.
Since the New Year, a joint industry group of Czech TV broadcasters --the Association of TV Organizations (ATO)-- also has been raw data from Peoplemeter studies directly to advertising agencies. This kind of market transparency is improving the country's overall business environment by making it easier for firms to plan and monitor their TV marketing campaigns.
To protect the research from corruption, the identities of families in a Peoplemeter panel remain a closely guarded secret. Prague's Association of TV Organizations also has contracted an independent research firm, Taylor-Nelson AGB Media Facts, to conduct the research. The industry group is responsible for forwarding Taylor-Nelson's findings on to broadcasters and advertising agencies.
Miroslav Batek, director of the Association of TV Organizations, says Peoplemeters are a far better way to study viewers habits than the "diary method" that is still being used across most of Eastern Europe and in the former Soviet republics. In diary studies, viewers simply keep a written record of the programs they watch. But Batek said the information often is distorted because viewers neglect to keep their diaries up to date and try to write the information weeks later from memory.
Martin Smrz, general manager at Prague's Taylor-Nelson AGB Media Facts, says the introduction of Peoplemeters has shown that Czechs watch less television than previously thought.
Smrz explained that diary keepers often would watch half of a program, but record the entire show in their log books. Smrz said diary panelists also are reluctant to admit watching late night erotic programs. But he said Peoplemeters have proven that the programs are more popular than previously thought.
Despite these differences, Smrz said the Peoplemeters have generally confirmed that the market shares of Prague's four main television channels have been accurately represented in previous studies.