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Nielsen plan gets poor cable reception

Times Staff Writer

Nielsen Media Research was all ready to roll out a rating system to do for TV commercials what it already does for TV programs. But the ratings agency ran into static from a slew of cable channels that are refusing to participate before kinks are ironed out of the system.

Nielsen spokesman Gary Holmes said most broadcast networks would participate in the new measurement program, which for the first time will give advertisers information about how many viewers are tuned in during the average minute of commercial time in a given TV show. Advertisers are eager for such ratings because many people are fast-forwarding through commercials when using digital video recorders.

Most cable channels will not participate in the new program, according to an industry trade group. Walt Disney Co.'s ESPN, Time Warner Inc.'s CNN and several other networks said Tuesday that they would not cooperate after the Cabletelevision Advertising Bureau pointed out flaws with the system. NBC Universal’s cable channels, including Bravo and USA, on Monday said they wouldn’t participate because the system wasn’t accurate enough.

Some major advertising agencies have also criticized the latest iteration of Nielsen’s Monitor-Plus system.

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Nielsen has delayed the release of the first data by three weeks, until Dec. 11, to address various objections.

Sean Cunningham, chief executive of the cable advertising group, wrote in a report that the system could create “bad first impressions” for cable channels.

For instance, the group said, Nielsen’s system has not figured out how to count video that includes both programming and commercial information.

Networks have until Nov. 1 to tell Nielsen whether they will cooperate. Cunningham said Nielsen had been working to remedy cable’s issues, for example, using coded sounds to weed out ads appearing in just one market. Otherwise, those commercials would have an artificially low viewing rate.

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Nielsen also agreed to label this season’s commercial numbers as “evaluation data,” meaning they shouldn’t be relied upon for negotiating ad rates.

An acceptable version of the overall measurement system is “a few months away, not years away,” Cunningham wrote to cable programmers.

The cable programmers that have balked haven’t criticized the idea of measuring commercial viewership but have instead faulted the execution.

“Once Nielsen gets the data correct, our team is glad to look at it,” Turner spokeswoman Jennifer Toner said.

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Sales staffers are split on whether the new data will help or hurt, one TV executive said.

But they feel obliged to provide some information to commercial buyers who recently have become used to getting precise reports on “click-throughs” from ads they place on websites.

Advertisers also are interested in the measurements now that about 12% of U.S. households have digital video recorders.

joseph.menn@latimes.com

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