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Ratings war pits the rated against the rater

The end, when it comes on television, can be quick and without warning.

Just ask the producers of NBC's much-touted new crime drama Prince Street. They hit the airwaves March 6 as the next addition to a proud lineup of successful dramas on the nation's most-watched TV network, premiering at a time usually occupied by the country's top rated television show, ER.

Then on Monday, NBC announced Prince Street would be removed from the network's schedule after just two airings. Press releases from NBC announcing the change barely mentioned the show, but TV critics across the nation immediately knew the cause: bad ratings.

Figures supplied by Nielsen Media Services _ based in Dunedin and currently the only source of national TV ratings _ showed Prince Street lost up to 45 percent of the viewers that normally watch TV during the two time periods it aired. So the show was removed before more damage could be done.

Which makes it all the more surprising when you call NBC's chief audience researcher, Nicholas Schiavone, and ask whether he believes Nielsen's rating figures.

"The Nielsen company is seriously deficient in the delivery of accurate, reliable data," says Schiavone, who also heads the Committee on Nationwide Television Audience Measurement, an industry group devoted to examining ratings figures. "Nielsen has either got to change, or get out of the way."

Schiavone's not alone. Officials from the other major networks _ CBS, ABC and Fox _ have also complained that Nielsen doesn't accurately measure who is watching what TV show when.

Last fall, the networks put their money where their mouths were, bankrolling a series of ads in eight industry trade publications with the headline, "Our Confidence in Nielsen is Down." The move followed threats of lawsuits and a separate move by CBS, NBC and ABC to fund development of a competing ratings retrieval system called START.

The dissatisfaction even trickles down to the local level, with bay area affiliates expressing their own problems with Nielsen figures.

At WFLA-Ch. 8, for example, demographic figures on TV viewership tabulated through the February "sweeps" period showed a weakening of viewership among key demographic groups. Yet, according to information provided by Nielsen, the ratings company surveyed 25 percent too many viewers over age 55 to match the area's census figures _ also undersampling viewers under age 35 by nearly 50 percent.

"We live and die by these numbers, and I don't think we've ever had an accurate reflection of who is watching," says Paul Catoe, general manager at WFLA. "We've got 1.4-million households in the market and of that number, 400 get to vote. I wouldn't go so far as to say it's a crap shoot . . . but it could be a lot better."

At Nielsen, executives say networks are blaming them for a steady decline in viewership attributable to the rise in popularity of the Internet, cable TV, satellite dishes, VCRs and a dozen other activities.

"We say it a lot, but I really think the networks are shooting the messenger," says Karen Kratz, Nielsen's communications manager. "Several years ago, when the networks' numbers were not down, we didn't hear the complaints we're hearing now."

Still, there are enough questions that Nielsen has developed a new gadget for measuring what people watch on their TV sets, called an active-passive people meter, now being tested in a small sample of homes in Tampa.

"This is something we've been working on since 1993," Kratz says. "We want to hold hands with our clients and work this out."

Kratz and her fellow executives at Nielsen may sit in Manhattan, close to the advertising executives and network officials that buy their services, but the heart and soul of the ratings company sits inside a sprawling complex covering 256,000 square feet on Patricia Avenue in Dunedin.

Here, a staff of 1,500 employees (swelling to about 3,000 people during sweeps periods) help generate the data that tells the world what we watch on television _ using a raft of computers, telephone banks, mail-sorting equipment and more to gauge a business that generates up to $30-billion annually in advertising revenue.

Nielsen gathers its data in two ways. First, it employs a system of "people meters" in a select number of homes in 36 cities _ actually sophisticated computer systems that tabulate what channel every TV set in the selected household is watching, with viewers required to press buttons indicating who is in the room.

The 5,000 homes in metered markets, which includes the Tampa/St. Petersburg area, provide daily information on viewing, delivered by computer to the Dunedin complex for conversion into local and national viewing trends.

Second, Nielsen sends "diaries" to 211 markets across the country _ again selected to reflect the nation's diverse demographics _ asking viewers to log what they watch during the four "sweeps" periods in February, May, July and November.

Sweeps periods generate the all-important demographic data advertisers need _ indicating how many people age 18 to 34 watched NYPD Blue, for example _ allowing networks and their affiliates to set advertising rates.

The Dunedin facility houses most of the machinery, equipment and staff needed to make this gargantuan task a reality: huge mail-sorting machines that place a complimentary payment (anywhere from $1 to $5, totaling $2-million) inside the diaries; banks of computers that tabulate meter data; a workshop to train the 400 field representatives needed to keep all the meters running.

In another, smaller building, about 1,000 telemarketers are employed for every sweeps period. They ask homes to agree to fill out diaries, check to see if they're filling them out properly, and urge them to mail diaries back.

"I think part of the reason we're here is access to the retirees," says Susan Buchanan, executive vice president of media operations for Nielsen in Dunedin. "We use a lot of them in our telephone banks."

Despite its complexity, some clients have leveled a laundry list of criticisms at Nielsen's current system, saying:

+ The diary system, which requires viewers to fill out entries every night for a month, is weighted toward older viewers, who presumably have more time than young parents or teenagers.

+ The people meters are unfairly weighted toward more affluent homes, which are more likely to have cable TV, college-educated viewers and white viewers.

+ Because viewers must press buttons on the people meter to indicate they are in the room, young children often are not counted, particularly when they watch TV unsupervised.

+ The meter system, though installed in 5,000 homes, rarely delivers information from more than 4,300 at any one time.

Efforts by Nielsen to develop a meter that can recognize the faces of viewers when they enter a room _ still far from ready for widespread use _ miss the point, Schiavone says. Nielsen must first learn to efficiently use the system it operates now, he adds.

"Advertisers aren't coming to NBC to buy ER . . . they're coming to buy the size of its audience," Schiavone says. "Nielsen is basically manufacturing the product we sell. And with so many dissatisfied customers, Nielsen must be doing something wrong."

Kratz, the Nielsen communications manager, admits to deficiencies in the diaries and metering system, which Nielsen hopes to address partly by developing an active/passive meter that can read program information hidden in a TV signal. But a better system will cost more money, which clients have resisted paying, she says.

For Jon Swallen, director of media research at New York advertising firm Ogilvy & Mather, it all comes down to the numbers.

With $30-billion hanging in the balance _ networks alone take in up to $10-billion _ one-tenth of a ratings point can add up to millions in ad revenue. But considering that many of Nielsen's ratings surveys have an error rate of plus or minus 10 percent, trying to evaluate a discrepancy of 1 or 2 percent becomes an exercise in frustration.

Swallen, who concludes Nielsen does "a pretty good job" tabulating ratings, says the networks may be aggravated at a perceived reluctance by Nielsen to respond quickly to complaints, which may have prompted financing of a rival service.

"Nielsen's lack of customer focus aggravates people trying to run businesses on the data they are providing," he says. "That eventually boomerangs back at Nielsen in the form of more hostility, vitriol and pummeling."