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updated 9/26/2007 7:20:12 PM ET 2007-09-26T23:20:12

The company that measures TV viewership announced a significant expansion Wednesday, saying it would triple the number of “Nielsen families” over the next four years to keep better track of new ways of watching television.

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Nielsen Media Research said it wants 37,000 homes, with 100,000 people, reporting on its viewing habits by 2011. That’s about triple the current sample size of 12,000 households with 35,000 people.

“The larger you make it, the more stable the data, the more precise the data,” said Sara Erichson, executive vice president for client services at Nielsen North America, “and that’s a very important thing for the industry, which uses this information for currency.”

For years, Nielsen has attached a “people meter” to the TV sets of participating families. But now, measuring viewership also means keeping track of who is watching on computers, cell phones, iPods and sets in public places.

Clients are also demanding more precise data, such as demographic details for small cable networks or by-the-minute ratings of who is watching commercials.

The sample sizes now are so small for some of the niche cable networks that if only one regular viewer happens to go on vacation, it could significantly affect the ratings, said Alan Wurtzel, chief researcher at NBC Universal.

“Sample expansion is always good,” he said.

No more written diaries
The change will also mean the retirement of Nielsen’s written diaries. To get precise ratings for a local market, Nielsen has long had a separate sample that required participants to remember what they watched and fill out diaries.

By 2011, Nielsen will use “people meters” for its local samples in 56 media markets. Currently, this is being done in 10 big cities, with Seattle, Houston and Tampa being added this fall.

The expansion will require a “very large staff increase” at Nielsen, Erichson said. She would not estimate how many people, and Nielsen wouldn’t say how much the initiative would cost.

While some 60 percent of families approached to join the Nielsen sample agree to join, the company has frequently had trouble keeping families. Nielsen pays families a limited stipend, enough to be an incentive but not enough to affect their viewing habits.

Another change quietly announced by Nielsen during this first week of the TV season caused enough of a stir in the industry that the company has essentially put it on hold for review.

Nielsen said it would no longer report separate ratings for programs that are repeated during the same week. For instance, if a Monday episode of “Heroes” on NBC drew 14 million viewers and the network repeats it on Saturday to 4 million new viewers, Nielsen would simply say that “Heroes” had 18 million viewers.

That could significantly affect the ratings — the 4 million Saturday viewers would not be counted separately, so the network’s overall ratings for the week would go up. Potentially, it could encourage networks to schedule more same-week reruns.

Advertising agencies were also disturbed because they want more precise information on who is watching each show each night.

But Wurtzel suggested the new combined rating would be used infrequently because one requirement is that shows carry identical advertisements for both showings. Networks would miss the chance to sell new ads for each night.

“We did this because we think it’s the right thing to do for television,” Erichson said. “But some of the feedback has pointed out that there could be unintended consequences.”

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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