Nielsen, new rival differ over methods

NEW YORK — Nielsen Media Research said TV ratings produced by its would-be rival, Statistical Research Inc. (SRI), will be at least 12% higher because of a decision to include bystanders who aren’t watching programs being measured.

A telephone survey of 10,000 households, completed last March and released late last week, showed a minimum 12% gap between people-meter measurements of active viewers and those that measure all persons in the room, some of whom may be reading or otherwise distracted from the TV screen. The gap could add 13% to 25% to totals from children’s viewing.

Nielsen took aim at SRI, which is conducting a test in Philadelphia of a rival measurement system that allows non-viewers to log in to its people-meter system, a tactic that Nielsen believes is methodologically unsound given the available tools.

“There’s been a lot of discussion of these two definitions, and very little information on what the effect of changing methodologies will have on the (ratings) estimates,” said Barry Cook, Nielsen’s senior VP and chief research officer.

Cook said he wasn’t objecting to inclusion of bystander viewing so much as questioning whether the current measurement tools can adequately do the job. “We don’t think ‘in the room’ viewing can be measured with an active peoplemeter,” Cook said, but rather by a different system now under back-burner development.

But the study itself suggested Nielsen is becoming defensive about the latest potential challenger to its monopoly over the TV ratings system.

And others say the findings simply point to a larger thorny issue that remains to be resolved.

“Why should somebody who does not consider themselves a viewer be counted as a viewer?” asked Steve Sternberg, senior partner for media research at BJK&E Media Group. “On the other hand, somebody who’s in the room could be a potential viewer. If you think of it in terms of the goal, which is really to measure the commercial audience, whether they’re actually paying attention to the program or not, they still have an opportunity to see the commercial just as much” by simply being within earshot of the TV.

Sternberg said inclusion of bystanders to viewing totals would disproportionately favor major broadcast networks and be most apparent in the early primetime hours, when viewers-per-household numbers are highest. Nielsen’s study in fact covered that 8-9:30 p.m. time period, suggesting the ratings differential across all dayparts would be substantially less. SRI’s own similar study turned up a 3% to 5% gap, and its president, Gale Metzger, believes bystanders are a legitimate component of viewership.

“Our research shows that in three-quarters of the cases, when people are in the room with a TV on, they’re doing something else besides watching television,” Metzger said. Nielsen has “a perspective which we do not share, and which I think is inconsistent with the media world today.”

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