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Nielsen Campaign Gets Low Ratings

March 20, 1997|BRIAN LOWRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Nielsen Media Research is waging what television executives characterize as a public-relations blitz, responding to the threat of the major networks creating their own audience-measurement system.

The service, which at this point has a monopoly on TV ratings, has drawn harsh criticism from broadcasters such as NBC and CBS, who have banded together to develop an alternative system through Statistical Research Inc.

Following recent media reports about the rival system, known as SMART (System for Measuring and Recording Television), Nielsen began putting out information critical of SMART while touting future changes in its own methodology.

Earlier this week, Nielsen notified clients of plans to regionally test a different ratings system early next year. The A/P Meter System (the A/P is for "active/passive") will be tried in 500 homes already metered by the service to compare results with the existing system.

"This whole public-relations campaign is just appalling," said CBS Executive Vice President of Research David Poltrack.

But Poltrack praised Nielsen for experimenting with a new system.

"That's what they should be doing," he said. "We applaud them for doing it."

Nielsen denied that its only impetus is public relations, citing a need to adapt TV ratings to meet demands presented by the coming age of digital television.

"We've been working on this thing for a number of years, before SMART came along," Nielsen spokesman Jack Loftus said. "Clearly, it's stepped up a notch since then."

Some network executives are angry about Nielsen implying that their criticism of its results merely reflects disappointment in their own ratings performance. They also dismiss charges that the SMART system would skew results to favor them, as Nielsen has suggested.

Combined viewing of the major networks has fallen to record-low levels this season, as alternatives whittle away at their audience. Still, each of the major networks is part of a company that owns cable channels--including ABC's ESPN network, NBC's CNBC and MSNBC, Fox's fX and Fox Sports West, and CBS' Nashville Network--and they have an interest in ratings for those outlets being reported accurately.

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