A preliminary report from Nielsen reveals that the number of tv households in the nation has declined for the first time. But Nielsen and network executives alike insist that, unlike the recent controversy over peoplemeters, this is not cause for alarm.

Total television households traditionally increase 1% to 2% each year, but there will be 92.4 million households next year – down from 93.1 million, according to the report.

Nielsen says its figures are based on data from the much-disputed 1990 census. Jack Loftus, Nielsen v.p. of communications, says that since all tv household figures for the last 10 years were made from projections of 1980 census figures, this year’s numbers – based on data and not projection – are much more accurate.

In fact, the networks have benefited from overestimations for the past two years. “The numbers were probably 2% high for 1990 and 1991,” Loftus says. “This is more of a re-adjustment than a dramatic plunge.”

“It is premature to comment on any impact this might have on revenue,” says Alan Wurtzel, ABC senior v.p. of research. But he says the main point is that there was an increase of 0.5% in total people, and the crucial 18-49 demographic group remained stable.

“Demography is what you sell,” adds Bob Niles, senior v.p. of research at NBC, who seems to be relatively unconcerned about the household decline.

Niles also says that in the past, Nielsen’s final numbers have been higher than the preliminary ones. And with the current political outcry over inaccuracies in the census reporting, Niles thinks the figures may inch upward again this year. “It isn’t over ’til the fat lady sings,” he says.

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