Iron grip of networks and Nielsens may be cracking -- what does it mean?

This is autumn in America: As surely as leaves turn, television viewing is on the rise after summer's lull. So, too, the past month's news about television has been a predictable patter of stories on the Emmys, the new shows, and the stars of ``Miami Vice.'' It's all to be expected: Television, an indoor sport, thrives on long, dark evenings. But three bellwether news items within recent weeks may prophesy some changes in this cozy little cycle. Two of them concern mergers between Hollywood and the television business: Ted Turner's offer to buy MGM-UA Entertainment (formed by the 1981 purchase of United Artists by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer) and Rupert Murdoch's takeover of 20th Century-Fox Film Corporation. The third item announces a major challenge to the television ratings preeminence of the A. C. Nielsen Company in television rating s.

At bottom, each of these changes -- costing, in total, well into the billions -- represents two things. They grow from the recognition that the nation's viewing habits are slowly but surely breaking out of the once-invincible hammerlock of the three major networks and the rating service that serves them. And they suggest a willingness to challenge these established giants for control of the hearts and living rooms of America.

In this country, television has a round-the-clock presence and a gargantuan appetite for programming -- a fact not lost on either Mr. Turner or Mr. Murdoch. They know that films can help satisfy that appetite, and that the American viewer is increasingly voting for movies and against prime-time programming with a flick of the VCR. Hence the alliance between those with the distribution systems and those who produce things to distribute.

Of the two ventures, Murdoch's may be the more interesting. Though he's been coy with details, he has announced plans to bring together his six Metromedia television stations and his movie operation into a new entity, Fox Television Network. Handled properly, it could grow into something resembling a fourth commercial network.

The plan for a new television rating service, several years in the making, comes from AGB Television Research. By the fall of 1988, AGB will have wired up a national sample of 5,000 households (containing about 12,500 people) with its PeopleMeter, which uses a hand-held electronic keyboard to record down-to-the-second viewing times by each member of the family. The sample, says AGB president Norman Hecht, ``will be almost three times larger than the current sample on which the A. C. Nielsen Company base s its household ratings and eight times larger in terms of households from which it obtains viewing by individuals.'' Nor is AGB daunted by its well-known competitor: It is part of the London-based AGB Research PLC, the third-largest research company in the world and a leader in the television rating business in 12 countries. (Nielsen, responding to AGB's challenge, has already announced that it plans to modernize its equipment and expand its sample audience.)

Well, so what? Is all this flurry of activity just more proof that the high-stakes television game is drawing new players to the table?

In part, yes. But the coming decades will reveal the extent to which the virtual monopoly enjoyed by the networks really is being forced to break up -- and what effect that will have on television programming. Under the impact of both cable TV and the VCR, that breakup has already begun: The three commercial networks, which among them captured 91 percent of the audience in 1979, had slipped to an 85 percent share last year in homes receiving only broadcast signals -- and to only 68 percent in the millio ns of households (more than 2 out of every 5) now wired for cable.

That, of course, is exactly why AGB is getting into the business -- to provide concerned television executives with a sample large enough, and a system accurate enough, to find out who's really watching what among the scores of choices now facing viewers. And that's why Murdoch is launching forth -- recognizing that the independent stations, if given sufficiently strong material, can assemble themselves into ad hoc groups (to broadcast single ``specials''), or even into more-or-less permanent networks.

No one imagines that a new, fourth network could produce anywhere near as many hours as ABC, CBS, and NBC provide their affiliates. But it wouldn't have to. It may, instead, play a spoiler role by siphoning off a small but significant number of viewers. That, in turn, could produce a further dilution of the networks' share -- leading to concern among advertisers that costs are too high for such a shrunken market, followed by a fall-off falloff in network revenues and a slicing of programming budgets.

The effect of such budget-cutting? That depends. These days, prime-time programming reportedly costs something like $1 million an hour to produce. Will a dwindling budget produce programs less slick, less sophisticated, and less appealing? Will the current mediocrities of network programming decline still further?

Or will the zing of competition force networks to find ways (as creative movie directors have) to deliver high quality at less cost? Will it turn television away from dazzling visual spectacles (which are costly) to dazzling writing and directing (which are comparatively inexpensive)? Will television mature into a medium that both appeals to the public and elevates its understanding and feelings?

Before too many more autumns have cycled past, the answers should begin to crystallize.

A Monday column

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