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MEDIA BUYING & PLANNING;HIGH HOPES FOR SMART RATINGS SERVICE, BUT PROMISES NEED TO BE FULFILLED SRI'S TV SET-TOP DEVICE LOOKING TO ANSWER THE BIG QUESTION-WHO'S WATCHING?

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The proposed TV ratings service competitor to Nielsen Media Research's data sounds great t o ad agencies and network TV sales executives.to whom? station execs? tv viewers? All that's needed now is to deliver on the promises.

Statistical Research Inc.'s test of SMART-System for Measuring & Reporting Television involves a set-top box that uses a remote-control device and icons to identify viewers-including visitors to the house, something Nielsen doesn't yet count.

Viewers click on a remote control unit to select an icon, then press the button for th eir symbol to indicate they are watching TV.

Collected and transmitted

Signals from programming are collected by a sensor on the screen, and transmitted to a data-collection box about the size of a hardcover book and then sent via ph one line to SRI's the company's mainframe computer.

Smart allows data to be collected within 30 minutes after viewing is completed, not several weeks, says Judy Kantor, SRI's manager for the test program.

Data can be sorted by daypa rt, sex, age, socio-economic identifiers, individual person and even by pairs of persons-as when only fathers and daughters watch together or when siblings watch the same show.

And information can be exported to a spreadsheet or dat abase program.

"We tried to make the data as easy as possible to use in a number of different ways," she says. "We've been making changes to it, like identifying the person-pairs, for example, as householder and spouse or househo lder and child 6 to 11 years old, to account for co-viewing where parents watch with their kids."

Nielsen responds that SRI's test, now in 400 Philadelphia area homes, is not a meaningful. test.

Without the universal "code" SRI P resident Gale Metzger wants included on every program, his units can measure only people and TV set activity, not the programs what is viewed.

Nielsen finds faults

More importantly, says Barry Cook, senior VP-chief research officer a t Nielsen, it can't identify the viewer's actions and decisions.We really feel the people meter system is the way to go. It gives you demographic data and the the only system where the viewer himself or herself classifies their vie wing.

"Watching or listening is something that's in the head of the viewer. It's a decision they make about whether they're paying attention," says Mr. Cook., Nielsen's senior vice president and chief research officer.

SRI hopes t o assemble the kind of database it has built for network radio, where media planners can key in market, audience and budget data to learn which buys will have the most impact on the desired audience, they're trying to reach,Mr. Met zger adds.

But Ultimately, audience response is what counts, counters Mr. Cook counters that participation in SRI's radio service, network radio measure,has been dropping from highs of 70% to around 50%. Nielsen has taken strides to boost audience participation to its current the 70%, level,a figure not seen since the early 1970s., Mr. Cook says. Response rates for Smart durin g its test have hovered around 60%.

Mr. Metzger rejects the notion that reporting bias will favor networks over cable or local programming because his efforts are financed by ABC, NBC and CBS.

"I've brought people good news and bad news. It's my job to give it to them straight. Down isn't bad, up isn't good. Reliable is good," he says.-David J. Wallace

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