Missing men debate: Nielsen says nothing wrong with ratings

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Nielsen Media Research this week will deliver to its clients a white paper with the expected bottom line that there's no need to correct anything in Nielsen's methodology.

It's a message guaranteed to anger the TV rating service's clients, who have long been frustrated that Nielsen is the only source of such data. They have been particularly troubled this season by steep declines in young-male viewership.

Jack Loftus, Nielsen spokesman, said the white paper will include recaps of three months of data produced by Nielsen for itself and at the special request of clients, as well as analysis that supports Nielsen's contention that the disappearing act pulled by 18-to-34 male viewers is correcting itself and is not due to a flaw in Nielsen's National People Meter sample.

"The sample breakdown is at a record quality high," Mr. Loftus said.

The season-to-date decline in 18 to 34 men's prime-time TV usage was at 8% last week. "If you trend the data, it is right on trend for the past 10 years," Mr. Loftus said.

That brought a quick reaction from network executives who have been troubled by the numbers, which ultimately translate into revenue from advertising based on the size of the audience. "I can't believe they're actually saying that," said one. "Their own numbers suggest it is not correcting itself," said another.

not so rosy

Nielsen is certain to find such assertions hotly debated by network research executives, who say none of the data given to them by Nielsen is consistent with such an optimistic view.

The debate over the missing young men came to a boil after an NBC analysis pointed to young Hispanic men, new to the National People Meter sample, as a possible explanation for skewed results. "I am not suggesting that what we found is the answer," said Alan Wurtzel, NBC's president for research and media development.

CBS suggested Nielsen laid the foundation for the defections by letting a disproportionate number of historically "problematic" survey participants-young men living in a household not headed by themselves-into the 5,100-home National People Meter sample as it attempted to meet client requests for a survey that better reflects the country's demographic makeup.

David Poltrack, exec VP-research for CBS and UPN, asked Nielsen to compare the behavior of men 18-34 who were in the national sample last year and are still in it this year. That analysis showed that in 40% to 50% of the unified sample, young men are actually watching more TV and that declines in viewership are "concentrated in a relatively small percent of the overall sample."

Ms. Greppi is a reporter for Crain Communications' TV Week.

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