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Nielsen Quirk Gives HBO a Ratings Boost

August 30, 2002|BRIAN LOWRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

While hardly the stuff of butterfly ballots and hanging chads, a quirk in Nielsen Media Research's measuring system has apparently been inflating audience estimates for such hit Home Box Office programs as "The Sopranos" and "Sex and the City."

A spokesman for the research firm confirmed that reported ratings for HBO shows combine all viewing of the pay service's various channels at that particular time, as opposed to being show-specific. As a result, audience estimates for "Sex and the City" on Sunday at 9 p.m., for example, would also include people watching something else on HBO Plus, HBO Signature and HBO Family at the same time.

"We do aggregate it," said Nielsen spokesman Jack Loftus. "All the viewing minutes to those different [channels] goes into that rating."

It's a good bet, of course, that the vast majority of viewers are watching "Sopranos" or "Sex" on the flagship network (HBO has actually run the former on two channels simultaneously, offering conventional and letterbox versions), but because of the manner in which Nielsen measures HBO, at this point there's no clear way to tell.

Because HBO is a pay service and doesn't sell advertising, the discrepancy isn't terribly significant, beyond whatever cultural curiosity exists as to how many people are watching its series. Loftus noted that Nielsen is working on technology that would encode each individual program and enable the service to provide a distinct rating for every show.

The news even took some HBO officials by surprise, although a representative said the combined viewing number is the only one currently available to the pay services, including HBO's rival, Showtime. Anyway, HBO has long emphasized its cumulative audience for programs such as "The Sopranos"--totaling how many people watch over a week, as opposed to focusing on the initial telecast, since each HBO series plays multiple times on different nights.

Nielsen ranked Sunday's showing of "Sex and the City" as the week's most-watched cable program, averaging roughly 7.4 million viewers--a figure that will apparently have to be reported with an asterisk until further notice.

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