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Networks Seek New Ways of Counting Viewers

May 17, 1990

NEW YORK (AP) _ A group representing the three networks has asked the Nielsen ratings company to consider studying new ways of counting viewers, a proposal that could change the industry’s standard ″people meter″ system, the company said Thursday.

The request disclosed by Nielsen Media Research came from the Committee on National Television Audience Measurement (CONTAM), representing CBS, NBC, ABC and the National Association of Broadcasters.

The research company said it would consider the request. If a decision is made to proceed with a study, test results would not be available before the end of this year at the earliest.

Nielsen also said its regular national service, which is based on people- meter data, ″will remain in place at least through the 1990-91 season.″

ABC, CBS and NBC annually pay Nielsen a total of $20 million for its research data, according to a network official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

CONTAM’s request comes at a time the networks are sharply questioning data from Nielsen’s people-meter system, which is in 4,000 homes.

Among other things, the data for the first three months of this year showed daytime viewing levels had taken their sharpest dive - 5.5 percent - in recent memory.

In a May 3 meeting here with about 300 network and advertising exectives, Nielsen officials said they had found no flaws in Nielsen’s ratings system, but that they were studying it and willing to work with the industry to improve it.

The people-meter devices require participating viewers to log on when they watch TV, thus telling Nielsen who is watching TV as well as how many.

The system now under fire by the networks became the industry standard in 1987, replacing passive devices called audimeters that only recorded TV set use, and gave raw numbers but not instant demographic information.

″The people meter is supposed to do both, and obviously can’t do both,″ said Nicholas Schiavone, an NBC vice president for marketing and sales research who is president of CONTAM.

Uncertainty over the data could have an impact next month when advertisers begin their so-called ″upfront″ buying of commercial network time, which this year is estimated to be worth $9 billion to $10 billion.

The next step apparently is up to Schiavone’s group. Jo LaVerde, a Nielsen spokeswoman, said the company still was waiting for a concrete proposal for a study from CONTAM.

Proposals outlining the scope of the study then will have to be exchanged and an agreement reached, ″because a proposal will not a test make,″ she said.