Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

A Lovers' Quarrel over Nielsen Ratings

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

A Lovers' Quarrel over Nielsen Ratings

Article excerpt

THE laugh is on the networks again, as far as those notorious "Nielsens" are concerned.

Last week, ABC, CBS, and NBC announced they had had it with Nielsen Media Research for an array of reasons and were launching a costly effort to come up with an alternative way of measuring who's watching what on TV.

But isn't it a bit awkward for the networks to be symbolically washing their hands of the Nielsens - the one regular source of national data about who's watching what TV shows? Over the years, many a creative new sitcom has been axed by the networks, despite millions of devoted viewers, because the show's Nielsen numbers weren't high enough.

Those figures tell the truth, network spokesmen would wearily - and sometimes patronizingly - explain to protesters, smirking a little at the naivete of anyone questioning the Nielsen methodology. Please stop raising the issue of quality as a criterion, they'd say. A few Nielsen points one way or the other is all we at the networks need to make a thumbs-up or thumbs-down decision concerning a new show. It's a scientific sampling, you see. Never mind that chorus of appreciation you're hearing from friends about some other cherished series like "I'll Fly Away."

Thus has the network party line often been dished out. Oh, it's true the networks have had an off-and-on lovers' quarrel with the Nielsens for decades. Sometimes it's been in the form of a tiff fought briefly in press conferences and news releases. It has even gone as far as a potential split, with the networks threatening to play the field, figuratively.

That's the ultimate threat - though usually an empty one - and it's what is happening this time. The big three have contracted with Statistical Research Inc. to devise an alternative method of audience measurement, one they hope will be equal to the challenge of the impending technological revolution in TV: satellites, fiber-optic superhighways, 500 channels, and the merging of telephones and computers. …

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