People-meter shock at the networks

People meters are causing upheaval and controversy in the television business. The reasons:

People-meter figures show a decline of about 10 percent in prime-time audiences. This translates, according to some network researchers, into a loss of $50 million in advertising revenues.

People-meter figures have recorded great variations in evening news audiences. NBC's Tom Brokaw was No. 1 until the people-meter figures placed Dan Rather in the No. 1 spot, soon to be superseded by ABC's Peter Jennings, who has now been replaced by Dan Rather again. Mr. Brokaw, meantime, has been No. 3 for several weeks in a row. NBC tends to blame it all on the people meters.

People-meter figures indicate that there has been as much as a 20 percent decline in viewing of Saturday morning children's programs. Will people push the buttons?

Network researchers, hardly unbiased observers, claim the confusing and contradictory data are often misinterpreted by those who make the greatest use of people-meter demographics - advertising agencies. Methodology is a major bone of contention. Will people punch themselves in faithfully? How should the fact that some will not do so be taken into account in the calculations?

Bill Rubens, vice-president of research at NBC, says he is troubled by the button-pushing aspect. He is concerned that not only children but adults will try to avoid punching themselves in and out. ``Maybe what we need is implantation,'' he joked recently. ``But then diary-keeping was a problem, too.''

David Poltrack, vice-president for research at the CBS Broadcast Group, says, ``Half the people asked to participate [in people-meter surveys] don't participate. ... There is a technology-related bias - high-tech people comfortable with television and video technology are much more likely to participate. And, obviously, their viewing patterns are different from the general popu-lation's.''

Allen Banks, executive vice-president and media director of Saatchi & Saatchi DFS Compton, part of the world's largest advertising conglomerate, probably reflects the advertising community's general attitude toward the new technology when he says, ``People meters represent a great advance in television research, even though they are still in an evolutionary stage.'' Better programming - maybe

Mr. Banks continues, ``...I can understand the networks' being upset at the lower viewer levels, because it means lower income for them. From the consumer point of view, people meters may result in more competition, which, in the long run, will mean better programs.''

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