THE laugh is on the networks again, as far as those notorious ``Nielsens'' are concerned.
Last week, ABC, CBS, and NBC announced they had had it with Nielsen Media Research for an array of reasons and were launching a costly effort to come up with an alternative way of measuring who's watching what on TV.
But isn't it a bit awkward for the networks to be symbolically washing their hands of the Nielsens - the one regular source of national data about who's watching what TV shows? Over the years, many a creative new sitcom has been axed by the networks, despite millions of devoted viewers, because the show's Nielsen numbers weren't high enough.
Those figures tell the truth, network spokesmen would wearily - and sometimes patronizingly - explain to protesters, smirking a little at the naivete of anyone questioning the Nielsen methodology. Please stop raising the issue of quality as a criterion, they'd say. A few Nielsen points one way or the other is all we at the networks need to make a thumbs-up or thumbs-down decision concerning a new show. It's a scientific sampling, you see. Never mind that chorus of appreciation you're hearing from friends about some other cherished series like ``I'll Fly Away.''
Thus has the network party line often been dished out. Oh, it's true the networks have had an off-and-on lovers' quarrel with the Nielsens for decades. Sometimes it's been in the form of a tiff fought briefly in press conferences and news releases. It has even gone as far as a potential split, with the networks threatening to play the field, figuratively.
That's the ultimate threat - though usually an empty one - and it's what is happening this time. The big three have contracted with Statistical Research Inc. to devise an alternative method of audience measurement, one they hope will be equal to the challenge of the impending technological revolution in TV: satellites, fiber-optic superhighways, 500 channels, and the merging of telephones and computers.
The networks are publicly asking how a system like the Nielsen TV ratings - created back when people sat before a TV set and watched a few broadcast channels - can possibly deal with such developments.
It probably can't, but that's not what's really bothering the networks. Their quarrels with the Nielsens have always been over something less visionary: a shrinking overall viewership base, for instance. This time around, the networks are complaining that the Nielsens - among other inaccuracies - are overestimating cable viewership, undercounting younger network viewers, and failing to include many lower-income network-TV watchers.
It sounds a lot like the summer of 1990, when the Nielsens began showing a drop in the total number of people watching TV, compared with the year before, and another tiff ensued. The networks demanded a recount. They said viewership should be averaged out over a year, not judged on a week-by-week basis. They invited a British firm to come over and compete with Nielsen.
They also challenged the accuracy of the ``people meter'' used by Nielsen test families to record their viewing habits. One ad- agency executive likened that final bit of reasoning to a high school kid sitting endlessly by the phone waiting for girls to call him. Suddenly, he sees the problem: There's something wrong with the telephone.
So enjoy the irony of the networks' new challenge for now. Such spats tend to be brief, and chances are that the networks and Nielsen will end this latest one by falling into each others arms in a tacit if unhappy display of mutual dependence.
Meanwhile, guess why some worthwhile new series have been dropped in the networks' midseason changeover - like NBC's ``Against the Grain.'' Set in a Texas town where football is life, that family drama was praised by critics but didn't get the right Nielsen ratings.
As long as networks rely so heavily on such statistics, Nielsen should have little to worry about.