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GROUP RETHINKS TV RATINGS

A large coalition, notably minus Nielsen, seeks to track viewers in a variety of media.

After weeks of rumors and a flurry of news stories, representatives from 14 companies gathered on a telephone line Thursday to explain a landmark effort aimed at finding a new way to count viewers.

They call it the Coalition for Innovative Media Measurement. It features some of the biggest players in every branch of TV-related media: ESPN, CBS, News Corp. and Disney to Procter & Gamble, AT&T and media-buying firm MAGNA Global.

It aims to leverage a seven-figure budget to commission research on mining better ratings data from cable TV set-top boxes, computer screens, television sets and mobile devices.

But there was one elephant in the room no one would get near: the Nielsen Co.

That's because Nielsen, which has drawn complaints over problems with its TV ratings service this year, is the sole provider of audience figures for the $8 billion television industry.

Any new solution to calculating audience figures would likely involve them. But Nielsen isn't a member of the coalition now, and the group's current members insisted they were not trying to develop a competitor to the company, as earlier media reports suggested.

"It's our industry's intention to take our future into our own hands," Alan Wurtzel, president of research for NBC Universal, said during a conference call Thursday with reporters in New York. "This was not designed to provide an alternative currency to Nielsen."

Indeed, representatives of coalition members on the call would not even say when or if they contacted Nielsen before news of their effort was reported in the Financial Times newspaper last month.

They did, however, stress their goal: to find a better way to count who watches media across broadcast networks, cable channels, online sources, mobile media and more. The plan is to hire a managing director and release requests for proposals to research companies with new ideas; any results would be made publicly available to all.

Which leads to another question: Will this consortium just wind up paying for a lot of research that helps Nielsen?

"What we're trying to do is stimulate research and innovation," said Kate Sirkin of media-buying firm Starcom MediaVest Group, who also resisted the notion that the coalition was an attempt to prod Nielsen into improving its services quicker. "We're looking for new measurement (systems)."

A spokeswoman for Nielsen, which tabulates its data at a huge collection facility in Oldsmar, said the company shares "all of the objectives of the leaders of the coalition. We look forward to working with them ... to continue to define the future of media measurement across more and more screens."

Eric Deggans can be reached at (727) 893-8521 or deggans@sptimes.com. See his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/media.

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