Networks Finally Say No to Nielsen

A LOT of people must be laughing - maybe even gloating a little. Suddenly, the networks are passionately arguing a case many TV viewers have been making for decades - that ``the Nielsens'' are no way to measure who's watching television or what should be on it. And all it took was a ratings report the networks didn't like.

The offending numbers - from the A.C. Nielsen Company - show fewer people watching the tube for the early months of this year than during the same period in 1989.

People aren't supposed to do that. The TV industry has gotten used to acquiring more and more viewers each year, ever since television began. Obviously, concluded the networks, something must be wrong with the ``people meter,'' an electronic device used by the Nielsen test group to record TV watching. As one ad agency executive said recently, it's like a high school boy sitting by the phone waiting for pretty girls to contact him but getting no calls. Then, suddenly, he discovers the reason: He needs a new phone.

The networks feel they need a new ratings system. This sunburst may astonish armchair programmers who have fumed for years over the dropping of some of TV's most promising series, sacrifices in the networks' ritual of devotion to the Nielsen system. The inventive new shows needed a chance to be noticed, but the ax usually fell before they got one.

Their trouble was that they registered Nielsen ratings a point or two below the competition. What were those ratings points based on? A few thousand sample viewers, whose choices of shows were then projected to represent the total public in all its complexity. To anyone protesting the tyranny of those mysterious Nielsen test families, the networks patiently explained that this was a scientific sampling.

But do you kill off a series loved by millions because a few more Nielsen viewers preferred another show? Absolutely, said the networks, smirking a little at the ingenuousness of people who would actually challenge a scientific sampling. Don't they understand? It takes into account all those varied human habits that critics claim were being overlooked.

The protesters wrote letters to the networks, to federal agencies, to Congress. They appeared on panels. They pointed to all the junk series resulting from such simplistic programming-by-the-numbers.

They actually thought that citing the plight of unserved viewers or showing how networks failed the public trust would do the trick. But they got nowhere, because they forgot that first you had to get the networks' attention. To accomplish that, something else was needed - the corporate equivalent of the two-by-four the farmer used on his mule in the familiar joke.

That attention-getter has finally come, and from an unexpected quarter - the impact on network profits caused by this decline in viewership. So who should now be joining the ranks of the Nielsen naysayers but the networks themselves - even if it is for the wrong reason. They want to average out viewing over a period of years. They want a British firm to come over and compete with Nielsen in the audience-measurement game. They are demanding, in effect, a recount.

A strange, richly ironic spectacle it is. Can you believe the networks are in the viewers' shoes, plaintively protesting the very basis of ratings? What about all those intransigent years in defense of Nielsen, the smug rationales, the put-downs of anti-Nielsen TV activists?

They disappeared the minute viewership showed a decline. Now it's the networks' turn to hear patronizing little lectures - from ad agencies, who remain Nielsen defenders - about the validity of those Nielsen reports. You see, the agencies point out, it's a scientific sampling.

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