The contests, run primarily during newscasts, lead to inflated ratings numbers then used as guideposts in the buying and selling of TV ad time during the rest of the year.
"I'm very happy the Four A's has finally gotten involved in this," said one TV station executive opposed to the contests. "The agencies have the real power here, and they could wipe out the practice in a heartbeat."
Use of contests is widespread. During the November sweeps, Nielsen Media Research said, there were 151 contests on 119 stations in 67 markets, up from 82 contests on 68 stations in 46 markets for the same period in 1994.
NETWORKS DISPLEASED, TOO
The networks are equally displeased with the proliferation of contests. CBS has gone so far in Pittsburgh as to cancel its contract with Nielsen because the measurement service wouldn't de-list stations that run contests.
Ironically, though, WFOR, the CBS owned-and-operated station in Miami, was running a watch-and-win newscast contest during the current sweeps period that awarded lucky viewers $1,000 a day, Electronic Media reported last week. Embarrassed network officials said they would not repeat the contest.
The media research and local TV committees of the Four A's met earlier this month to discuss the problem. The committees were supposed to meet again Feb. 23 to develop a paper with recommendations on the contest issue, but that meeting was postponed.
Key to any Four A's position paper would be recommendations for short-term solutions. One proposal made by Nielsen is that the electronic tape used by many agencies to track ratings be highlighted in some way so buyers know which stations are running the contests and when.
Another alternative, agency insiders say, is to ask Nielsen to provide easily accessible data indicating ratings and share information for the month before and after the contest period so buyers could easily gauge a contest's ratings impact. Armed with that information, buyers could negotiate accordingly.
Also under consideration at some agencies: reducing ad allocations to offending stations.
PROBLEM IN NON-METERED MARKETS
One drawback of the proposal to give monthly comparative data is that it can only be done in the major metered markets that are measured continually. TV viewing in most markets is only tracked during sweeps periods.
The long-term solution, say spot TV buyers and network executives, is to lengthen the sweeps period so that it's less economical to run contests. But that would involve a sea change in network programming.
What makes that difficult as a long-term solution is that it would entail more measuring in non-metered markets, which would cost stations more money.