NBC SEEKS NIELSEN RIVAL

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NBC is actively seeking to break Nielsen Media Research's stranglehold on TV audience measurement, a move that could affect the way advertisers spend billions of dollars.

The broadcast networks' frustration with Nielsen boiled over last week, as both NBC and Fox lashed out at the service during meetings with their affiliates before the start of the National Association of Television Program Executives conference in Las Vegas.

TALKING TO SRI

Neil Braun, president of NBC Television Network, confirmed he has met with Statistical Research Inc. and asked it to develop a business plan for a rollout of an alternative audience measurement service.

Mr. Braun expects a response within six to eight weeks.

SRI confirmed it has met with Mr. Braun but wouldn't comment on any plans for a new service.

"Our wish is that Nielsen would make customer service and responsiveness their highest priority, but monopolists don't always behave that way," stated Mr. Braun, whose actions are said to have been spurred by complaints from affiliates and advertisers.

Reacting to the possibility of a rival, Nielsen VP-Communications Jack Loftus noted the high cost of a start-up and said Audits of Great Britain spent $80 million in the 1980s in an attempt to compete with Nielsen.

Support for AGB at the time was seen as just a way to get Nielsen to implement people meters, which it eventually did.

`INTENSE SCRUTINY'

Mr. Loftus also questioned how well an alternative would do in the face of the "kind of intense scrutiny Nielsen faces every day."

NBC's behind-the-scenes, business-plan approach differs from the tactics of Fox. Citing measurement discrepancies in Greenville, N.C.; Green Bay, Wis.; and some Alabama markets, Fox Chairman-CEO Chase Carey told affiliates he has "instructed our counsel to pursue any legal recourse necessary against Nielsen to get them to reform...Nielsen is the only organization I've ever dealt with that makes our federal government look like a smooth and responsive organization."

The other networks are keeping a close eye on NBC's moves.

"The longstanding policy of CBS is to do what is necessary to generate competition to Nielsen," said David Poltrack, exec VP-research and planning at CBS. "So if Neil Braun or anybody has approached SRI with such a plan, we would be interested in speaking to SRI about it."

CBS, along with NBC and ABC, is a member of the Committee on National Television Audience Measurement. Contam members can talk about measurement issues together, but federal law prevents the networks from colluding to set up a competitor to Nielsen.

RIVAL IS YEARS AWAY

ABC also is interested in an alternative service to Nielsen but believes it would take a couple of years to get off the ground.

"You can't put the cart before the horse," said Peter Chrisanthopolous, exec VP-research, marketing and promotion for the ABC Television Group, referring to the Systems for Measuring and Reporting Television audience project. This effort, under way in Philadelphia, is being conducted by SRI and funded by Contam.

The idea behind Smart is to develop a system that more accurately reflects the viewing habits of young adults and children, said Gale Metzger, president of statistical research for SRI and the person in charge of Smart.

Mr. Braun would expect the new measuring service to incorporate the Smart technology. But Mr. Loftus was skeptical of that technology, noting it hadn't really been scrutinized yet, and said one of its main features, which uses encoding, was inferior to Nielsen's active/passive technology.

`MISSING THE POINT'

"Jack misses the point," said an NBC insider. "Neil is looking for a service that is accurate, reliable and useful, that has defined procedures and quality control, and is client-friendly in that it is responsive."

Mr. Loftus bristled at the notion his company isn't responsive. For example, he said Nielsen responded promptly and in detail to the problems Fox has had.

While ad agencies would like to see an alternative to Nielsen, a number of them need to be persuaded that Smart should be a part of any new service.

"We're very leery of a system totally funded by the sellers," said David Marans, senior partner-media research director at J. Walter Thompson USA, New York.

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