MSAs, CSAs and DMAs: A Guided Tour of Local Market Designations

by | Jun 27, 2014 | Media Relations

I’ve written previously about the importance of identifying “geographic scope” when targeting journalists. Most journalists write for either a national or local audience, but how do you define “local”? I work from a home office in El Cerrito, Calif. (pop. 23,549), one of 19 cities in Contra Costa County (pop. 1,049,025). As far as the U.S. government is concerned, this places me within the San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward Metropolitan Statistical Area (pop. 4.5 million) and the larger San Jose-San Francisco-Oakland Combined Statistical Area (pop. 8.4 million).

A “metropolitan statistical area,” per Wikipedia, “is a geographical region with a relatively high population density at its core and close economic ties throughout the area.” A “combined statistical area” groups adjacent metropolitan and “micropolitan” areas into a larger region defined by commuting ties. But if you’re in PR, you’re probably more interested in how people consume media, not their commuting patterns or where they buy their groceries.

That’s why marketers typically rely on proprietary “media market” designations, most likely from Nielsen Media Research, the outfit best known for its TV ratings. Nielsen carves the U.S. into 210 television markets, also known as DMAs (designated market areas). They range from New York, with 7.4 million TV homes, to Glendive, Mont., with about 4000. In many cases, these TV markets correspond roughly with the coverage areas of the big metropolitan newspapers.

Until recently, the other major tracker of geographic media consumption was Arbitron, which focused on radio. Nielsen acquired Arbitron last September, rebranding the new property as Nielsen Audio. So Nielsen also designates U.S. radio markets, 276 in all. These are smaller than TV markets—for example, Sacramento, Stockton and Modesto, Calif. constitute the 20th largest TV market, but they’re separate radio markets (Nos. 27, 86 and 118 respectively).

Looking at these markets can change your perception of each locale’s relative importance, at least in terms of media consumption. Raleigh-Durham, N.C. may lack a major league baseball or football team, but it’s the No. 24 TV market, outranking Charlotte, Indianapolis, Baltimore and San Diego. You probably don’t think of Greenville, S.C. as a major metropolis, but it’s the largest city in the Greenville-Spartanburg-Asheville-Anderson TV market, which ranks No. 37. That places it ahead of Austin, Oklahoma City, Las Vegas, Memphis, New Orleans and Buffalo.

The government’s statistical areas are defined by the Office of Management and Budget, and the data is available to anyone willing to navigate the Byzantine U.S. Census Bureau website. Nielsen is not so forthcoming. The company publishes its annual rankings of TV and radio markets, but if you want to know which counties or zip codes constitute each market, you have to pay for the privilege.

As the website notes, “The DMA boundaries and DMA data are owned solely and exclusively by The Nielsen Company. Any use and or reproduction of these materials without the express written consent of The Nielsen Company is strictly prohibited.” Even the term “DMA” is a registered trademark.

Those boundaries were the subject of a “David vs. Goliath” legal battle several years ago between Nielsen and Truck Ads, a small company in McLean, Va. that provides truck-side advertising services. Beginning in 2004, the Truck Ads website had maps showing the boundaries of each TV market, even referring to them as DMAs. Nielsen sued Truck Ads over this practice in 2008. The suit was settled a few years later, and Truck Ads rebranded its designations as “AD” (Area Designated) maps.

Truck Ads says its current maps are “99 percent similar” to the Nielsen maps, and this info remains publicly available. You can view the boundaries of each market by clicking on an interactive map or from a list sorted by state. You can even enter a city, county or zip code in the search field to locate its media market. You can also identify media markets in the Bing search engine by entering the zip code followed by “DMA map.” Truck Ads will sell you this data—along with demographic info from the U.S. Census—in  various packages. (Nielsen’s PR department did not respond to queries about its DMAs.)

Of course, any market designation is somewhat arbitrary, whether it comes from a public agency or private company. Contra Costa County may not be a media market, but it has a newspaper, the Contra Costa Times. Contra Costa and Alameda counties are part of the East Bay, which has its own alt-weekly, the East Bay Express, and its own sports teams, the Oakland A’s and Oakland Raiders. The A’s have made noises about relocating to the South Bay (San Jose/Silicon Valley), but the San Francisco Giants have blocked the move, claiming that San Jose is part of their territory.

None of which really concerns me, because I’m from Philadelphia (the No. 4 TV market), and whether I live in CSA #5, DMA #6 or Census Tract #386000, I’ll always root for the Phillies.

Bulldog Reporter
Bulldog Reporter is a leader in media intelligence supplying news, analysis and high-level training content to public relations and corporate communications professionals with the mission of helping these practitioners achieve superior competitive performance.


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