Statistical Research Inc. is close to a deal to add Andersen Worldwide as a strategic partner for the rollout of Smart, according to executives familiar with the talks.
If a deal with the world's second-largest accounting firm is consummated, it would be a huge boost for SRI, struggling to line up financial commitments for its potential competitor to TV ratings king Nielsen Media Research.
SRI is said to be talking to the Arthur Andersen unit of Andersen Worldwide. Arthur Andersen, with revenue of $6 billion last year, is in an acrimonious divorce proceeding with sibling Andersen Consulting, and a deal with SRI could eventually make Arthur Andersen a major player in the management of data gathered from TV viewing.
``A lot of us were having serious doubts whether Smart would launch [nationally],'' said an agency media executive whose major client is one of the top 5 U.S. advertisers. "It they get Andersen on board, that really changes the complexion of the game. It's a company that dwarfs Nielsen in size."
The executives familiar with the discussions cautioned that a pact with Andersen hasn't been finalized and that SRI also is talking to other large accounting firms.
SRI President Gale Metzger declined comment.
SMART ON THE BUBBLE
"I think we should have some word on a strategic partner in 14 days to three weeks," one of the executives said. "The general feeling is that if SRI doesn't get somebody by then, and has to shut down Smart and let its people go, we might not get another chance to find a competitor to Nielsen for 10 years, if at all."
SRI has non-binding letters of intent from a number of TV networks, advertisers and ad agencies to subscribe to Smart if it rolls out.
"It's a chicken-and-egg thing," one of the executives said. "SRI can't really sit down and negotiate real contracts until it gets a deal with a strategic partner, and a strategic partner doesn't really want to commit until SRI shows it has concrete support from the [network and advertising] community."
Of the major broadcast networks, SRI is said to have non-binding commitments from all but CBS. But if SRI is able to land Andersen or another major strategic partner, CBS is expected to come on board.
On the cable side, USA Networks and Discovery Networks are said to have made non-binding commitments; Time Warner's Turner networks have never been enthusiastic about Smart--originally funded as a test by ABC, CBS, NBC and, later, Fox--and haven't signed a commitment.
News of the discussions with Andersen came as over 900 media buying executives met in New Orleans last week at the American Association of Advertising Agencies' Media Conference & Trade Show, where discussion of Nielsen was a major topic.
4 A'S ATTENDEES RAP NIELSEN
From an opening morning panel discussion on the future of TV measurement, through a panel about the use of optimizers, a number of attendees complained about Nielsen's monopoly position, its perceived unresponsiveness and its methodology. There were no representatives from Nielsen on any of the panels.
Executives said that if a deal is reached between SRI and Andersen, the accounting giant could eventually end up acquiring SRI.
Besides Smart, SRI is best known for Radar, a radio audience measuring service that itself may be facing competition soon.
Copyright March 1999, Crain Communications Inc.