NEW YORK — As the networks had feared, the first ratings from A.C. Nielsen's controversial new People Meters showed fewer people watching television this week than had been indicated by the previous system of monitoring the nation's viewing habits.
But research officials at the three networks say they don't expect that the early People Meter ratings will have much immediate affect on their advertisers.
The new system, which is replacing the Nielsen company's traditional National Television Index ratings, went into effect Monday. It showed 1.3 million fewer households watching the tube that night than the old system, which is still in place until Sept. 14.
With the exception of ABC's "Monday Night Football" broadcast, the People Meter ratings released for Monday's prime-time programs--most of which were summer re-reruns--were consistently lower than the NTI ratings. The largest drop was for CBS' "Newhart," which was off in the People Meter ratings by 17%.
"Monday Night Football" registered 9% higher on the People Meter, but NBC's "A Year in the Life" was 1% lower, CBS' "Designing Women" and NBC's "ALF" were 9% lower and CBS' "Kate & Allie" was 11% lower.
The two samplings even showed a different network winning the night. Under the old system, CBS won with a 15 rating, compared to 14.5 for ABC and 13 for NBC. The People Meter showed ABC winning with a 15.5 rating; CBS got a 13.4 and NBC a 12.5. Each rating point represents 886,000 households.
William Rubens, vice president of research at NBC, said the first-night results did not produce any surprises. The networks had found that People Meter ratings were usually lower than the NTI ratings during tests of the new technology last season. The exceptions to that rule, he said, were sports events such as "Monday Night Football," since young, male viewers tend to be more receptive to the People Meter technology.
The People Meter is a more complicated system of monitoring viewing habits. The old Nielsen meter system simply recorded when the TV set was turned on and to what channel it was tuned. A separate system of viewer diaries sent though the mail provided more detailed information about who was actually watching the programs.
The new system is designed to accomplish both tasks simultaneously. It requires various members of a Nielsen household to "sign on" with the computer meter when they are watching. But the networks have been skeptical about the system; ABC and CBS have not yet signed new contracts with Nielsen, although they are continuing to receive ratings information under their old pacts.
Although Rubens said NBC "has less confidence" in the People Meter ratings than in the old methodology, he attributed much of Monday night's difference in ratings to random fluctuations, and added that consistently lower numbers should not affect advertisers' decisions about which shows to sponsor.
He contended that advertisers will still make their decisions based on the show's ratings and demographics in comparison to what is available on the other networks, rather than being concerned with absolute numbers of how many people are watching.
Marvin Mord, ABC vice president of marketing and research, added that advertisers have been traditionally less concerned about the overall performance of a network than of its specific shows. "I would think that (advertisers are affected) by both the relative performances of both the network and the programs, but I would say it's primarily the programs," he said.
David Poltrack, CBS vice president of marketing, agreed. "They (advertisers) don't buy a show because it's on the No. 1 network, but they do like to buy the top 10-rated shows," he said. "If a network is No. 1 because it has a lot of top 10 shows, it can create the most attractive advertising packages, in which it can get advertising for its lower-rated programming by offering time on hit shows as part of the package."
In recent months, Poltrack has been an outspoken critic of the People Meter technology. CBS is the network predicted to suffer most from the People Meter ratings, since its audience is skewed more toward older and female viewers than the other networks and the technology has been found to be less well used among those demographic groups than others.
CBS has also subscribed to another ratings system, AGB, to provide its advertisers with what the network believes is more accurate demographic information.
Even Poltrack, however, said that CBS, like the other networks, has decided to wait until all the bugs are out before passing final judgment on the People Meter. "I think they're making progress already," Poltrack said.
"This is a year that is going to be somewhat chaotic. (But) this is going to be the system now, and the industry has to rally behind the new system and make it work."