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For the first time since Arbitron Co. abandoned the TV ratings business last year, Nielsen Media Research may have some new competition: its three biggest clients.

The Big 3 networks and the National Association of Broadcasters last week said they are developing a new, state-of-the-art ratings panel that will serve as a laboratory to evaluate changes in TV technologies.

"The stakes are huge. Television programs are scheduled and canceled, advertising time is bought and sold based on audience measurement," said Nicholas Schiavone, VP-media and marketing research at NBC and chairman of the Committee on Nationwide Television Audience Measurement, a research trade group representing the Big 3 and the NAB on the project.

Last week, the committee said it had commissioned Statistical Research Inc., Westfield, N.J., to implement the new ratings lab and that SRI has already developed TV metering and program-coding devices, operating since June in a prototype field lab in some 100 homes in five New Jersey counties.

Committee officials said they will establish a new TV ratings panel of about 500 households in a major TV market by yearend.

"It will be a normal sample for a local TV market ratings system," said David Poltrack, CBS senior VP-research and planning.

"It could be that when we finish the test, SRI could continue to run it as an ongoing ratings service," Mr. Poltrack explained. "Our plan is essentially to create a competitive environment in terms of the television measurement environment of the future."

He said it is unlikely that the Big 3 would ever own and operate their own TV ratings system other than for laboratory purposes, but that the lab could evolve into an independent ratings service.

NBC's Mr. Schiavone termed Nielsen's current system inadequate to deal with the changes soon expected in the TV viewing environment. "If we go to 500 channels tomorrow," he said, "the Nielsen system is dead" because its current and proposed systems aren't sophisticated enough.

Nielsen said it supports the committee initiative to develop the lab and plans to work closely with the organization to explore and test methods of improving TV audience measurement.

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