NEW YORK — Brainstorming researchers at A. C. Nielsen Co. decided back in 1957 that what they needed to plumb the mysteries of American TV viewing habits was a sort of electronic pillow.
Their idea was to put a specially wired cushion on father's easy chair, a second on the sofa where mother reposed, and others where the children usually sat.
A pressure-sensitive sensor in the pillow would register the viewers' presence, giving the researchers data not only on whether the set was on, but on exactly who was watching "Playhouse 90," Phil Silvers in "You'll Never Get Rich" or other programs of the day.
Before long, someone realized that family members sometimes sat in each other's chairs, or on the floor, and the device--by now tagged the "Nielsen whoopee cushion"--was abandoned. But researchers and the companies that advertise on television have never lost their desire to find out exactly whose eyes are turned to the set at any moment.
This year, Nielsen has decided to start relying on a new device to gather such demographic data and, in so doing, has brought the biggest change in audience nose-counting since the advent of television.
The introduction of an innocuous-looking black box called the "people meter" has filled the air with a fog of statistics, and set off sharp exchanges between the advertisers and ad executives who advocate its use and the network officials who complain that it has arrived too soon.
The advertisers and ad agencies hope that the new system will yield more accurate audience numbers--and possibly, by showing lower viewing levels, allow them to win some price reductions. In a year when the ABC and CBS television networks are already suffering losses, that's what the networks fear most.
CBS may have the most to worry about, for data from the new device suggests that CBS audiences in some key time periods may have been smaller than previously believed. Nielsen results for the past season show that for the prime-time hours, CBS household viewing levels were 7% lower with the people meters than they had been with the old, so-called diary method, while NBC's was 1% lower and ABC's was 3% higher, according to CBS officials.
Even such small differences translate to huge sums in the network advertising business, where a single prime-time rating point is worth more than $90 million in revenue over the course of a season.
The demographic data collected with people meters supplements other data that provide estimates of the number of American households tuned in at any particular time. The demographic data is particularly valuable to advertisers because it helps them to target their commercials to the specific audiences they wish to reach.
"We've had an orderly market here for 30 years, and suddenly it's in chaos," said William Rubens, vice president of research for NBC. "We're going to have millions of bits of additional information floating around, and nobody to say what they mean. . . . The industry has been seduced by the glamour of the button."
The moment of truth is rapidly approaching. The networks and the advertisers next month will begin negotiating advertising sales for the "up-front" buying season, in which the broadcasters will sell about $3 billion of their $8 billion in advertising time for next season.
"It should be one of the tensest, toughest negotiations we've seen," said Alec Gerster, media director at Grey Advertising in New York.
As this drama has developed, the industry has also watched the unfolding of a separate plot centering on the competition between the companies that provide the all-important ratings research. Nielsen, a Dun & Bradstreet subsidiary that has dominated the ratings business since the 1940s, was forced to begin use of the people meter because a competitor, AGB Television Research of Great Britain, began lining up clients of its own with people meter data.
How People Meter Works
This year, both companies will offer people meter services, and while the much-larger Nielsen seems to have the edge, the advertising and broadcast industries are waiting to see which system proves fastest, cheapest and most accurate. "Nielsen has already been one of the big losers in all of this," said Hugh M. Beville Jr., a longtime broadcast ratings researcher and author of a book on the subject. "Their domination of this business is facing its first serious challenge."
There is little mystery in the people meter's operation.
About the size of a cable-TV channel selector, the meter has buttons assigned to each family member, and others for guest TV viewers who may wander into the room. Viewers are supposed to push a button when they begin watching and each time the channel is changed.
If they fail to do so, a red light flashes as a reminder.
Nielsen began publishing people meter data from a sample of 1,000 households in January, 1986, after collecting preliminary numbers for two years. The company plans to increase its sample size to 4,000 by September, 1988.