IF we all watched 7 hours and 8 minutes of television a day, life could not go on as we know it.'' From his sunny office in Boston's financial district, Steven A. Holt is talking about one of the most sobering statistics in American cultural life: the A. C. Nielsen Company's latest figure showing that television sets are on more than seven hours each day.
As president of Television Audience Assessment (TAA), a fledgling firm engaged in rating TV shows on the basis of their quality, he is also talking about the extent to which the widely used ``Nielsen ratings'' drive television programming.
And he is raising one of the central questions of the video age: whether a new rating system might generate higher-quality programs.
At least four companies are now looking at new audience-measurement systems:
Nielsen itself is experimenting with a ``people meter'' -- a hand-held device allowing household members to ``sign in'' electronically when they start and stop watching. Trial meters have been installed in 300 homes nationwide to learn more about the age and gender of the viewers -- and about their channel-switching.
Arbitron Ratings company, in cinjunction with Burke Marketing Services, has launched a people-meter firm called ScanAmerica. The service, now being tested in 200 homes in Denver, provides householders with both a people meter and an electronic wand. Viewers are asked to use the wand to scan the bar codes on every item they bring home from the grocery store -- allowing central computers to draw connections between what the family buys and which commercials it has recently watched.
AGB Television Research, a US subsidiary of the British firm AGB, is testing 400 people meters in Boston area -- with the undisguised goal of eventually knocking Nielsen out of its lead position in the ratings business. AGB has been testing similar devices overseas for the last eight years.
And Mr. Holt's Boston-based firm is using survey techniques to measure both the ``appeal'' and the ``impact'' of television programs.
Why this enthusiasm? Holt, an articulate administrator with a neatly trimmed beard and a winning smile, says that ``there is a move toward people measurement and away from set measurement.''
A decade ago, he says, when a family had only four or five channels to choose from, and when all the members sat down to watch a show together, it was enough to measure (as Nielsen does) the tuning of the set.
Now, however, with cable reaching more than 42 percent of American households, many viewers have 30 or more choices -- and a remote-control device that makes it easy to ``zap'' commercials by switching to another show in midstream. All of these new rating systems have one thing in common: They are driven by the needs of the advertisers, who last year spent nearly $19 billion on television commercials.
``The advertising agencies now are extremely avid for infinitely more refined information about how to get to their target audience,'' says TV Guide correspondent Neil Hickey. Any improvement in the rating system, he adds, is ``a tool for advertisers'' that ``refines the media-buyer's task.''
So far, the Boston-based TAA is the only one engaged in ``qualitative ratings'' -- an old idea that has so far proved elusive, in part because there has been no market for it. And that, says executive director John Demling of the Electronic Media Rating Council, means that the people at TAA will have ``a tough time ahead of them.'' The reason: Advertisers have yet to be convinced that there is any connection between the quality of the program and the numbers of people who watch their commercials.
``The idea of quality ratings,'' says George Gerbner, dean of the Annenberg School of Communications at the University of Pennsylvania, ``is a noble but impractical idea. The way [commercial TV] is set up, there is . . . no special reward for quality -- so who cares?''
But Holt thinks he can prove that there is a reward. His firm, which began four years ago as a nonprofit company based in Cambridge, Mass., is shifting to for-profit status -- confident that it can sell its services to advertisers and networks.
Using survey techniques familiar in social science research to question sample audiences, TAA researchers look for two things: the ``appeal'' of the programs watched by their respondents (based on a ``personal program rating'' across a scale of 0 to 10) and their ``impact'' (based on whether the programs touched the viewers' feelings or caused them to learn anything).
So far, based on nearly 70,000 scores collected in a prototype study funded by the John and Mary R. Markle Foundation and a number of cable companies in the spring of 1982, they have found that:
Nearly half of all viewers are eating, washing dishes, reading, telephoning, or doing something else while ``watching'' television.
Half the audience leaves the room at least once during a show. And less than two-thirds of the audience for an average hour-long program watches to the end.
Some 15 percent of those watching ``over-the-air'' broadcast television -- and nearly 40 percent of those subscribing to cable -- report that they ``always'' or ``often'' change channels during the commercials.
Viewers give full attention to only one-third of the programs they watch.
But the key point -- and the one which suggests that there may be a market for TAA's data -- is the direct correlation between liking the program and watching the commercials. In TAA tests, 46 percent of the audience for ``low impact'' programs left the room during the commercials -- while only 26 percent left during programs they considered to be ``high impact.''
Holt says the link between program quality and attentiveness to commercials has been hinted at over the years by researchers. ``We wanted to substantiate that with hard facts,'' he says -- ``not as a group of do-gooders based at Harvard,'' he adds, but in an effort to ``encourage the television advertising community to use more-sophisticated tools.''
Can such tools improve the quality of television?
``That's our hope,'' says Elizabeth J. Roberts, chairman of TAA and founder of its original nonprofit operation. She prefers to talk about diversity -- her ``definition of quality,'' she says. She notes that there will always be a need for ``background television'' -- the mass programming that viewers don't have to watch attentively. But she feels that, if advertisers recognize the importance of presenting their messages in the context of appealing, high-impact programming, that in itself will stimulate more diversity.
Dr. Roberts cites 7-Up, Hallmark, and Polaroid as advertisers that ``have been making buys on that basis [of quality programming] for a long time.'' TAA research, she says, could give them the statistics to validate their choices.
But Mr. Demling of the Electronic Media Rating Council, who has a longtime interest in research on qualitative ratings, takes a more modest view: ``If qualitative ratings were ever to succeed, TAA are the sort of people who could bring it off.'' But so far, he says, ``the hopes of people who wanted television to be better . . . have not been fulfilled by changes in the measurement system.''