Network Flap Over People Meter

Times Staff Writer

CBS' gripes that the new people-meter ratings system of A.C. Nielsen Co. is badly flawed and could cost the networks millions of dollars drew mixed industry reaction Tuesday, ranging from mildly supportive to scoffing.

"I think it's much ado about nothing," Paul Isaacson, executive vice president of Young & Rubicam, a major advertising agency, said of CBS' complaints to Nielsen, made in a now widely circulated letter. All the network is asking for, he said, is an independent study to validate Nielsen's ratings.

"We share the concern that CBS and others have expressed," said Alan Wurtzel, ABC's senior vice president for research, adding that his company has found problems with both the new system's methodology and its audience sample.

Meetings have been under way with Nielsen officials, he said: "All we're looking for, in layman's terms, is a level playing field," he said.

There is "no doubt" the new system is flawed, said NBC executive vice president Robert Blackmore, who agreed with one CBS official's estimate that the loss of advertising revenue for all three networks could amount to $40 million or $50 million.

He was not as vociferous as CBS in his complaints, though. A big problem, Blackmore said, is that Nielsen, which has defended the accuracy of its new system, does "not have a sense of urgency" about working to correct the flaws.

"However, we continue to work with them because we think this can be worked out--if we're willing to work together."

The people meter, a viewer-operated device, now is in 2,300 households, having gone into official operation last Sept. 1. It records not only how many homes are watching TV and what programs are being viewed but also which members of the household are tuned in--thereby providing broadcasters with important demographic data.

Controversial even before it became Nielsen's new national ratings standard, the people meter now has come under particularly strong fire from CBS, which demands that corrections be made of what it considers several flaws.

The fire came Dec. 23 in a letter from CBS Broadcast Group Gene F. Jankowski, which, although ostensibly private, has circulated among key ad agencies and surfaced this week in Advertising Age magazine.

It was sent after people-metered returns for the November ratings "sweeps"--a time of major importance for network affiliates--showed CBS' and ABC's prime-time ratings down 13%, compared to the same period in 1986, when the sweep was assessed by Nielsen's previous, "passive" audience-measurement system, which required no work by viewers.

(NBC's ratings suffered only a slight drop in last fall's sweeps).

In his letter, Jankowski argued that the Nielsen audience sample was not "representative of the U.S. viewing population" and said CBS was "entitled to an independent validation" of the new system from the company.

His letter was sent to Nielsen chairman John Holt, who also is executive vice president of the Dun & Bradstreet Corp., which in 1984 purchased the Chicago-based ratings company.

William Doescher, a Dun & Bradstreet spokesman, said Tuesday that Holt had no comment and would "not respond in the press to what he regards as a private business matter."

Peter Apert, a media analyst for the Wall Street brokerage firm of Cyrus J. Lawrence Inc., said it would be fair to say that the CBS complaint is indicative of the growing pains of the new system.

Both CBS and Nielsen have good points to make, he said, but "I also think CBS' outrage is to some extent, of course, the result that their ratings performance this year, by any measure, isn't very good."

He said he doubted that the network is suffering a case of sour grapes and attributing all its problems to Nielsen, "but clearly, to some extent, I think they are looking for a fall guy when a large percentage of the blame or problem could be attributed to their own poor programming decisions this year."

CBS, which had dropped to third in prime time ratings this season, now is in second place, slightly ahead of ABC, but well behind NBC. The latest season-to-date Nielsens, released Tuesday, show NBC with a 16.4 average rating, CBS with a 13.6 and ABC with 13.2. Each ratings point represents 886,000 homes and can be worth $100 million over a year's time.

Young & Rubicam's Isaacson said he thought that Nielsen should periodically "aggressively defend" its ratings service.

"I think they've done that before, but it seems now as if we're going through some sort of period where the users, the networks, are taking shots at the service," he said.

He said he couldn't recall when any network had been so vociferous in its complaints to Nielsen.

Speaking of Jankowski's letter, he said that "I don't think one can approve of their (CBS') public position. But one can understand why they're taking it. They're getting the hell beat out of them."

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