Low viewership figures have networks seeing red

March 12, 1997|By N.Y. TIMES NEWS SERVICE

If you believe Nielsen Media Research Co., February was a month when a lot of people quit the television-viewing habit.

According to Nielsen figures, the average number of American households watching prime-time television on all channels fell by more than 1 million in February, a precipitous drop that will surely be cited by the growing number of combatants in what the Intel chairman, Andy Grove, has labeled the coming "war for eyeballs" in the American home.

It is not happy news for advertiser-supported television channels, which, with about $46 billion in annual revenues, dominate the cash-flow side of that war. Those revenues are directly linked to the numbers of viewers that stations, networks and cable channels can reliably produce.

But more and more, the biggest players in the television industry are arguing that the picture of a country watching less television and spending its time looking at something else, whether computers or video games, is nothing more than a distorted vision. It reveals more about the way that television viewing is measured, they say, than about what Americans actually watch.

"I don't trust their numbers at all," says Don Ohlmeyer, the president of NBC's West Coast division. "They're trying to measure 21st-century technology with an abacus."

Despite the recent downturn in viewership, as measured by Nielsen, the number of homes with televisions has consistently grown and is now at 97 million.

The release of the data from the crucial February sweeps period has intensified the old debate over Nielsen's monopoly role as the company that counts which shows have captured which viewers. Once the Bible of television ratings, Nielsen has enraged its best customers. Most angry are the broadcast networks, who blame flaws and inconsistencies in Nielsen's system for the loss of tens of millions of dollars.

Giving new weight to their concerns, three networks have banded together for the first time to help finance an experimental ratings system that they hope will either become a full-fledged competitor to Nielsen by the end of the century, or at least force the rating company to change its methodology and answer their main complaints.

Pub Date: 3/12/97

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