PASSING BUCK ON THE SWEEPS

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CBS CORP. CEO MEL KARMAZIN was off- target when he off-handedly dismissed gripes about the TV ratings "sweeps" system. When he spoke at the American Association of Advertising Agencies Media Conference last month, perhaps he was provoked by Saatchi & Saatchi's Allen Banks, head of the Four A's media policy committee. Mr. Banks had just renewed a common complaint among TV ad buyers: that the sweeps system is a mess that needs fixing. To which Mr. Karmazin replied: It's your problem, and not my responsibility.

That simply doesn't wash. Nor does Mr. Karmazin's solution. Unhappy with the distorted ratings that sweeps programming stunts produce? Simply don't use the numbers, he says. Don't use the sweeps ratings? For dozens and dozens of smaller TV markets, where there is no other measure of household viewing by Nielsen Media Research, the sweeps data are all that exists. It's that or nothing. Some alternative.

Fortunately, this is an occasion where CBS' actions speak louder than words. Even its CEO's words. Far from being aloof from the sweeps ratings controversy, CBS is on record offering a plan that, while not dumping the sweeps system, would give it a chance to produce data that better reflect viewing in non-sweeps months.

The "checkerboard" plan CBS proposed a year ago would spread sweeps period measurements over two months instead of one. To keep costs down, Nielsen would do local diary measurements every other week during that two month period. CBS reasonably contends TV networks and stations will have a harder time maintaining the specials and stunting for two months instead of one.

Media buyers would prefer year-round measurement in all TV markets, and Nielsen is promoting the (expensive) idea of deploying local-market people meters. Yet the checkerboard still offers an option that can be tested -- now -- without arguing about who will pay for additional costs. For frustrated TV ad buyers, who know they are paying extra for sweeps viewers who melt away once the contests and programming gimmicks are over, why isn't this worth a try?

Mr. Karmazin is correct when he says it is not the networks' responsibility to solve the problems of the sweeps system. At least it's not their sole responsibility. Fixing or replacing the sweeps system is a joint problem for TV and TV ad buyers, and ultimately it will be solved jointly or not at all. The checkerboard is no cure-all, but it's a start at cooperation. The other TV networks and most TV station owners would have to agree with CBS to make it happen. Media buyers should press them to be as willing as CBS is to take a