Nielsen rival offers national TV ratings tied to product use

November 07, 1991|By Bill Carter | Bill Carter,New York Times

The broadcast networks have complained about A.C. Nielsen Co.'s national ratings system for several years. Now one of them is backing a potential competitor.

CBS has signed on as one of the first clients of Scan America,

C ratings service of Maryland-based Arbitron Co., which has for years been a serious competitor to Nielsen in measuring ratings for local television stations.

Scan America differs from the Nielsen ratings service, the standard for setting advertising rates for national television, in that it measures product use as well as audiences.

Viewers in the Scan America survey are asked to run a "scanner wand" over the product code on the bottom of each item they buy in almost any store. This information will then be correlated with audience data to show what viewers of different programs prefer to buy.

As CBS sees it, this development is long overdue in measuring television viewing. CBS has emphasized for about a decade that the prevailing system of buying commercial time, which emphasizes the age of viewers, is inadequate.

"Advertisers now use an 18-to-49 age group as a surrogate for product usage," said David F. Poltrack, senior vice president of research at CBS. "That is a very unreliable surrogate."

Scan America is not a new service. It has been test-marketed by Arbitron in Denver since 1987. But starting Monday, the service began to report national data, both on television viewing and product use. The information will come from a sample of 1,000 households in the New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Miami areas, where CBS owns stations.

Arbitron pays each household $300 to $400 a year.

Arbitron intends to expand the service into a full-fledged competitor to Nielsen. Ken Wollenberg, Arbitron's executive vice president of sales and marketing, said the national sample, and the participation by CBS, made Scan America a "serious contender in the rating arena."

Indeed, Scan America has plans to expand to 5,000 households by 1995, Wollenberg said.

To become a serious contender, Scan America will need to sign up many other clients. Right now, its only other clients are the Young & Rubicam advertising agency and Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. It especially needs the other two networks. But NBC and ABC are skeptical.

Wollenberg asserted that his service was superior to the Nielsen ratings system because of the extra information it provides. He also said households in the Scan America survey were more likely to participate than those using the Nielsen people meter, a remote-control device that viewers use to keep track of what they are watching.

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