Nielsen moves sweep to March 2009

Change designed to minimize disruption of DTV transition

Nielsen Media Research said Wednesday that it will move the traditional February sweep period into March next year to minimize the disruption surrounding the digital TV transition.

It's likely the first time the ratings giant has moved the timing of its four-times-a-year sweep periods. But it's also a measure of the industry's concern over the Feb. 17 conversion to all digital signals that has the potential of leaving millions of people who use over-the-air TV without a way to watch broadcasts.

In recent years, with the advent of Local People Meters in the larger markets that give overnight ratings, sweeps periods have become less important. But in smaller markets, they're still key to setting local TV ad rates. LPM ratings -- and national ratings -- will continue to be released as they normally would, though the sweeps "books" in LPM, diary and metered markets will be produced for March not February. This will allow consumers and Nielsen field staff to convert to digital. Nielsen will have to put a different type of monitor into many homes.

CBS research chief David Poltrack said Wednesday that the February sweep isn't as important to stations as November (soon after the start of the TV season) and May (near the end). February in recent years also has seen more special programming including the Academy Awards and the Super Bowl.

"The February sweep has a very narrow window of use because soon after it comes out, you're into the May book," Poltrack said.

Nielsen will continue to produce overnight national TV ratings during the transition period, which could take a week or more to settle as new TVs or digital converters are sold. The broadcast networks seem resigned to some kind of a temporary drop in viewership among the 10 million or more of their audience that still has over-the-air TV.

Nielsen said that 9% of all TV homes don't have the equipment needed to convert a digital signal; another 7% have at least one TV that receives over-the-air. It isn't clear how many of them will be converted by Feb. 17, but Nielsen projects that 3% of its sample households will have at least one set that won't work.

Poltrack said that any disruption in February won't be permanent, and that Nielsen is moving aggressively to solve any ratings issues that come up from it. The weeks leading up to that also will present challenges, with some homes moving early to digital TV and because many new TVs are purchased during the December-January cycle.

"That whole period of early 2009 is going to be a very unstable one, and pushing it back to March seems like a good idea," he said.

Jack Wakshlag, chief research officer for Turner Broadcasting System, believes that most consumers will transition to digital fairly quickly. But he said that it's going to be another year of disruptions for the broadcast networks, which were heavily affected this year by the writers strike.

"None of this is going to help broadcast ratings go up," Wakshlag said. "It's going to help them go down."

Nielsen Media Research is owned by the Nielsen Co., which also owns The Hollywood Reporter.