Less TV? When `people meters' are `kid meters,' are they correct?

Have large numbers of children really turned their backs on Saturday morning television? That question, tinged with skepticism, rises in the wake of the A.C. Nielsen Company's finding that 20 to 50 percent fewer children are tuning in on Saturday morning. That finding comes from the rating firm's new ``people meters,'' recently installed in 2,400 homes in the United States.

The meters - little boxes with buttons that are punched when family members begin and end their viewing - replaced the old paper diaries that participating families used to keep. The new method is likely to be more accurate, says Joanne Laverde, a research analyst with Nielsen.

Under the old system, mothers, who kept the diaries, were likely to conclude, ``Yep, Saturday morning, the kids must have been watching TV,'' according to Ms. Laverde. Such reliance on recall was inherently shaky, she says. People meters are less prone to human error, in her view. She emphasizes that Nielsen's follow-up phone interviews have tended to confirm dropping viewership.

What's at stake in all this, with regard to Saturday morning TV, is the networks' longstanding perception that this is prime time for kids. A drop in viewing means a drop in advertising dollars and a possible change in programming - and maybe even a gradual move away from a commitment to programs for children.

But any such move based on people meter findings would be ill advised, according to some longtime observers of the television scene.

Peggy Charren, head of Action for Children's Television, says bluntly of the people meter findings: ``It's a shame that it's nonsense.'' She says she'd love to believe that kids were rejecting the networks' Saturday morning offerings, ``but the fact is, it's unbelievable that suddenly kids would stop watching.''

The responsibility of punching the meter in and out is more than most young children can be expected to shoulder, says Ms. Charren. ``Anyone who thinks a child does do it hasn't tried to get a child to clean up his room.''

Dorothy Singer, co-director of Yale University's Family Television Research and Consultation Center, seconds Charren's view. She adds, ``I don't think children are very good reporters of what they're watching anyway.'' It's much more accurate to have parents help monitor their children's viewing, she says.

Dr. Singer concedes that the spread of VCRs is probably contributing to some loosening of children's attachment to network shows, as relatively few parents purchase or tape alternative programming. But she says it's unlikely that the impact of VCRs yet amounts to the large drop-offs indicated by the Nielsen numbers.

``Remember, poor kids still don't have VCRs, and they're the heaviest viewers,'' she adds.

The overall picture concerning children's television habits hasn't really changed much, says Singer. The research at the Yale center continues to find that preschoolers watch 23.5 hours at week on average, and elementary schoolchildren about 30 hours a week.

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