"If you can't change the reality, you can maybe change the perception of reality."
This is how Betsy Frank, executive vice president of New York-based Zenith Media Services Inc., describes the impetus behind recent efforts by the TV networks to look beyond the time-honored Nielsens for their ratings figures.
The comment by the advertising veteran reflects the view of most media specialists. Stung by sharply declining figures - especially during their recent "sweeps" period last month, when the number of homes watching prime-time television dipped markedly from the previous year - the networks have been taking steps to launch a more congenial ratings service to compete with Nielsen Media Research.
Should the move develop into serious competition for Nielsen, the results would probably be healthy, many observers feel. "The fact that Nielsen is a monopoly in this area makes a lot of people somewhat nervous," Ms. Frank notes. "A monopoly is certainly a simpler way to live your life, but it's probably not the best way from a cost and value standpoint. So for quite a while there's been an incentive to see another participant in this business."
Sporadic previous attempts have been made by the disgruntled networks to break up the monopoly by starting up other competing services, especially when earlier ratings drops have occurred. "For a couple of years it was AGB [a US subsidiary of a British firm], about 10 years ago," Frank recalls. "It was Arbitron about the same time. That's when Nielsen made a significant improvement in its system."
The current effort to offer Nielsen some competition has broader support by more players than previously: the big three nets - ABC, CBS, NBC - advertising agencies, and some major advertisers. The new hope is a company best known for radio listenership figures: Statistical Research Inc., of Westfield, N.J. The networks are helping fund an SRI experimental service based in Philadelphia - Systems for Measuring and Reporting Television (SMART).
But even if it should change figures somewhat, the current move, say many observers, won't solve the networks' real problem: the tide of TV history.
"There's a huge monster out there called change," says Bill McLaughlin, a former CBS news correspondent who is now associate professor of mass communications at Quinnipiac College, Hamden, Conn. "The networks just don't want to recognize it."
Even as the number of American households with a TV set grows - standing now at about 97 million - the percentage of those watching the broadcast networks has been shrinking for a long time, standing now at about 60 percent.
The reason: what Mr. McLaughlin calls a "sea change in what Americans watch or do with their spare time." Cable TV continues to gain ground over broadcasting. Direct-broadcast satellite TV is making inroads. And some experts say the Internet is helping pull certain segments of the population away.
One of Nielsen's problems, say its critics, is the intrusive and inconvenient way it records viewing, which may affect the individual results and thus the national viewing patterns. Besides the people meter, the system requires viewers to push buttons. It also uses an often-challenged diary system, with people writing in their own viewing choices. SRI uses a home's existing wiring system and depends on programs being coded so they can be detected and recorded.
The current controversy stems partly from Nielsen's recent addition of 1,000 homes to its existing sample of 4,000. Network and other industry figures claim the new homes have skewed the true viewing figures, and their hope is that SRI will help restore them. Nielsen has acknowledged that it has an eye out for a new breed of viewer - on the Internet for instance - just as it reached out for cable viewers when that medium began developing.
Is SRI a realistic threat to Nielsen's historic dominance in the TV ratings game?
"For the time being, probably not," says Larry Burkum, professor of mass communication at the University of Evansville in Indiana. Part of the networks' problem "may be methodology," Mr. Burkum acknowledges. "The ratings are always just an estimate. For a number of years, the networks have been claiming that the figures are being underreported. What Statistical Research Inc. is saying is that they're going to have different numbers they believe will be more accurate, and eventually they believe you'll be able to get instantaneous reports."
But, he adds, "I don't think Nielsen is any more off than they've ever been. I don't think there's been a dramatic change."
McLaughlin sees the threat facing broadcast TV as similar to that posed by TV itself to the movie industry in the early 1950s.
"They didn't realize what was happening to them," he states. "This is just the beginning. Nobody knows what's going to happen."