Nielsen rival grabs support

Big Four ready to test SMART system

NEW YORK — Aspiring Nielsen competitor Statistical Research Inc. reported Friday that ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC and a group of leading ad agencies have agreed to back its SMART ratings system.

The Big Four broadcast networks, who have suffered the most viewership erosion, have called the loudest for a competitor to Nielsen, which is the only national TV audience measurement company.

SRI said that the four nets as well as Grey Media, Optimum Media, STARCOM Media Services, TeleVest and TN Media have signed a letter of intent to pursue a new national television ratings service based on the SMART (Systems for Measuring and Reporting Television) project.

But the announcement raised several questions. Cable and syndication companies were noticeably absent from the list. Industry observers were surprised because even programmers USA Networks and MTV Networks, who have been cheerleading SRI’s cause to the rest of the cable industry, were not part of the announcement.

Letters of intent

Also, SRI did not state whether the letters of intent require the signers to provide SRI with a cash infusion.

Executives from Nielsen Media Research, the company that SRI aims to compete against, have said that SRI needs to raise $100 million to have enough capital to build a national TV ratings system.

“It’s still a four networks show,” said Nielsen representative Jack Loftus. “They’ve yet to come up with the money. Even if they sign contracts with these people and get money, they’ll still have to go out and raise more money.”

SRI made its announcement late Friday afternoon, and calls to SRI executives were not returned.

“I’m gratified by the broad support our plan is receiving from advertisers, agencies and media companies,” said SRI president Gale Metzger, in a statement.

Nets find Nielsen fault

As broadcast network ratings have sunk, the networks have blamed part of their audience decline on Nielsen’s methodology.

Cable network sources said they were surprised that USA and MTV Networks did not lend their names to SRI’s announcement.

“MTV and USA were consistently all along trying to sell us on SRI,” said one highly placed cable source.

Betsy Frank, MTV Networks executive VP in charge of research, said, “We are considering the (SRI’s) proposal that’s been made to Viacom.

“But at the present time, we believe that our commitment in resources and in dollars should be made to understand our audiences and then to use those insights to better serve them with programming and online content,” said Frank. “Creating a new report card for the industry is somewhat lower on our priorities.

Some agreement

A source at one of the ad agencies that signed a letter of intent to support SRI said that while the industry was undecided about whether SRI could provide a better TV viewership measurement service than Nielsen, there is a general agreement that supporting SRI will force Nielsen to improve its services and prices.

Neil Braun, the outgoing president of NBC Television, said in a statement, “SRI has shown that better is possible. They’ve demonstrated a commitment to doing what’s best for the industry. NBC knows that this is an important investment for the long term.”

To date, the Westfield, N.J.-based SRI has run a test for its rating system in Philadelphia.

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