The plan calls for the formation of a joint industry commission to come up with standards for TV audience measurement. The commission would then issue a request for proposals, awarding the winning bidder a contract to conduct TV audience measurement for a predetermined number of years.
If Nielsen were to lose such a bidding process, it could effectively end its reign as the leading provider of TV audience measurement data.
Nielsen declined to comment.
"The model is the British Audience Research Bureau, which most buyers and sellers in the U.K. are very happy with," said one media manager familiar with the discussions.
Added an agency research executive, "The idea is for the buyers and sellers to take control of the currency-audience measurement. Right now the vendor, Nielsen, really has the control."
Much of the discussion has taken place during recent meetings of the Four A's National TV & Radio Committee. Those meetings were attended by a number of agency research specialists; the committee has also sought input from broadcast networks and the Cabletelevision Advertising Bureau.
A number of media executives emphasized that the plan is not set in stone.
"What this is all about is what to do in the year 2006," said committee member Jon Mandel, senior VP-director of national broadcast for Grey Advertising, New York. He declined further comment, citing an agreement committee members made not to publicly discuss the plan.
Others familiar with the situation said agency executives have been unhappy with the ongoing war of words between Nielsen and the TV networks over Nielsen's techniques.
"There's been a strong feeling that the main currency of our business-the entire audience measurement process-has been devalued by all the comments and ads in the press, and that it needs to stop," the agency research executive said.
Even if the Four A's decided to form an industry commission, the plan faces serious legal hurdles. First,there is the question of restraint of trade if an industry committee made up of buyers-agencies and marketers-and sellers-broadcast and cable TV networks-is formed. The restraint of trade question arises since buyers and sellers are marketplace adversaries who would be cooperating in picking one vendor.
A legal challenge from Nielsen is also a distinct possibility. Nielsen would not comment.
NOT ON SAME WAVELENGTH?
Furthermore, it's not a sure bet that all the concerned parties are on the same wavelength. The committee's recent session with CAB President Joe Ostrow was said to be contentious. Cable networks are not necessarily dissatisfied with the status quo, since cable's ratings have been rising at the expense of broadcast networks.
Turner Broadcasting System, whose networks nab about a third of cable's ad billings, wrote a letter to Mr. Ostrow earlier this year urging him to be cautious about a potential Nielsen competitor, Statistical Research Inc.'s Smart system, because of fears it would boost broadcast ratings.
Mr. Ostrow declined to comment on his meeting with the Four A's committee.
Other cable networks, though, do have some problems with Nielsen's methodology. At least three-USA Networks, Discovery Communications and MTV Networks-are in conversations with SRI about participating in the Smart initiative.