Media Buying & Planning; Changes At Oft-Maligned Nielsen; Bevy Of Agency And Network Complaints Triggers SRI Challenge

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Nielsen Media Research finds itself being questioned more often than ever before as the sole arbiter of national television ratings.

The two primary parties that depend on Nielsen's ratings data, ad agencies and TV networks, have heaped criticism on the researcher and have led some parties to commission the development of a new ratings measurement service.

Yet there's no guarantee that any competitor to Nielsen can provide more accurate data. Indeed, complaints about Nielsen haven't slowed the TV ad market.

"This is still the currency of the marketplace and denigrating it in the press doesn't solve any of the issues," says Susan Nathan, senior VP-director of media research at McCann-Erickson Worldwide, New York. "We're working with Nielsen to, hopefully, make some changes and sometimes that has to be done behind-the scenes."

Data access, improvement in response rates and Windows-based reporting data are just a handful of the changes Ms. Nathan says are in progress.

Agency and network Their complaints against Nielsen range from as having inadequate sample sizes to and aging technology that can't accurately distinguish active viewing from TV-as-background noise or capture the multiplicity of viewing choices available through in today's home as viewers choose among cable, video,broadcast network and satellite programming.

Incendiary tones taken

Some criticisms have borne incendiary tones. In January, Fox Television Chairman Chase Carey, upset over November 1995 sweeps ratings for several affiliates, called Nielsen "one of our industry's real failures" and described Nielsen's service as "unprofessonal and unacceptable."

Ms. Nathan She is concerned that TV networks are stoking a competitive fire under Nielsen's feet by supporting a rival company's test of new technology, she adds, but admits she cannot predict whether a new service would significantly change ratings numbers. upward or down.

SRI mounts the challenge

The challenge to Nielsen -the sole network TV rating company since Arbitron dropped out WHENTK-comes from Statistical Research Inc., which has a Westfield, N.J. company that developed a network ratings and media-buying software package for radio media buyers.SRI President Gale Metzger says Nielsen's sampling methods are stuck in the 1950s and hopes to move ratings research "from reactive to pro-active."

He envisions changing media-buying and ratings data using a similar tool as Bloomberg Business News, which uses a proprietary dedicated terminal to distribute its information.

In any case, SRI subscribers would get information daily that reports on viewer participation as quickly as a program shown the night before.

Mr. Metzger is also seeking a universal TV programming code, the equivalent of a scanner bar code, on retail products for each show TV program to permit sensors placed in sample homes to instantly and accurately record what appears on a TV screen.

"You need improvement in both the data gathering and the reporting systems," he says. "We want to move the center of power from the research company to the users.

By keeping a tourniquet on the data you restrict the flow. Subscribers shouldn't have to buy it two, three or four times. You should only buy it once."

Nielsen executives counter there are flaws in SRI's system and in any measuring device. The company stands behind its people meter and points to its efforts to increase reporting among children and to use larger sample audiences.

Competition might lead to improvements in TV ratings data, make each company better but without an acting real rivalry, Nielsen is measured against imaginary goals, company executives say.

"We want to help and be involved, to teach and learn. Unfortunately, the answer we get back is that the Nielsen system is flawed and the SRI system is a miracle," says Barry Cook, senior VP-chief research officer at Nielsen. "A lot of this is broadsides without any real specifics. We think active coding is the way to go, but we wouldn't put all our eggs in that basket." We think active coding is the way to go, but we wouldn't put all our eggs in that basket. If you take an item that doesn't scan in the supermarket, they don't give it to you for free. There's a back-up system to key in the price," he adds.

Big bucks hang in balance

Some observers say the specifics are in Nielsen's numbers. TV and advertising agency executives view competition between the two firms positively, says Larry Hyams, VP-audience analysis at ABC Television.

"One-tenth of a rating point may be statistically insignificant to Nielsen but may represent tens of millions of dollars to the network in possible make-goods," says Larry Hyams, VP-audience analysis at ABC Television.he says. we have to give back.

"If lower ratings are caused by shows being rejected by viewers, we can live with that. We're looking for the most reliable information out there-if it means reduced ratings, it means reduced ratings," he says.

Overstatement of cable viewing, fatigue by Nielsen families in using the equipment and difficulty measuring children's unsupervised viewing were among current problems Mr. Hyams cited.

However, but there's no agreement on the definition of "viewing": itself:is it people sitting in front of the TV watching or when people are moving about the room with the TV on?

DEFINITIONS AND STANDARDS

Agreeing on definition of terms and reporting standards are among the obstacles facing any competition between SRI and Nielsen-let alone solving discrepancies in TV ratings data.

Some media department executives welcome competition, even if it required subscribing to an additional data service.

"We'd like to see competition. It would keep them honest and keep Nielsen on its toes," says Mary Meder, exec VPN: cq full title.j at Harmelin & Associates, a Bala Cynwyd, Pa.-based media-buying company. with $120 million in annual billing. "Probably, we'd have to subscribe to both and evaluate them for a year or two. When Arbitron was around we used both. But .... We'd want to be sure SRI is not just a flash-in-the-pan and be sure they're going to be around for a while."

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