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Q Scores gain favor as networks doubt Nielsen

Everybody’s jumping down Nielsen’s throat these days over the puzzling disappearance of large numbers of young-male viewers compared to those watching TV a year ago.

Perhaps everyone just needs to take a moment and get in touch with their feelings.

Marketing Evaluations’ Q Score keeps plugging along after more than 40 years of laying out what executive VP Henry Schafer likes to call “qualitative research.” All of the broadcast networks except Fox subscribe to the Q Score, as do most cable networks and production companies, because “we tell our clients how much people like what they’re watching,” Schafer says.

As the Nielsens come into question, the networks are starting to rely on the touchy-feely meter for development and retention purposes. Beyond measuring “TVQ” Marketing Evaluations has expanded into Performer Q, Product Q, Kids Product Q, Cartoon Q, Cable Q, Sports Q, and yes, Dead Q — posthumous likeability.

While Nielsen spews out the data showing how many people are watching a show, and whether they’re men 18-49, women 25-54, kids 2-11 — or any other demographic breakdown programmed into the software — the Q Score is asking people whether they like an actor or a TV series. If they like it, Q Score wants to know why; if they don’t, Q Score is even more eager to find out why — because the data could help the producers make changes to the show, saving it from cancellation.

One example: What does the populace think of Tony Danza as a talkshow host? It’s something the familiar sitcom star has never done before; are people willing to see him in an altogether different role? Q Score can advise.

Buena Vista has begun pitching a Danza-hosted syndicated gabfest to stations for fall 2004. Schafer says Q Scores would poll its survey group with leading questions like “Is Danza confident? Is he believable, trustworthy? How might he relate, as a questioner, to other actors, or to politicians or sports figures?”

BV declined to comment on the specifics of the Danza research, but Schafer suspects he came out well enough to convince the distributor that Danza has a real shot of getting cleared on TV stations in most of the U.S. within the next few months.

There is enough demand for this kind of data that the Q Score is facing new competish, from E-Poll, which tracks the affinity auds have for a particular show.

Gerry Philpott, president and CEO of E-Poll, which publishes the upstart E-Score, says that their data could have impacted the Fox Network’s December 2002 vaporizing of its rookie series “Firefly,” the futuristic action thriller created by Joss Whedon (“Buffy the Vampire Slayer”).

Even though the Nielsen ratings were sub-par, “all of my tracking data showed that the people who were watching ‘Firefly’ ranked it very high on their list,” Philpott says. If Fox had shown patience with the show, he continues, favorable word of mouth could’ve added enough fresh viewers to turn it at least into a moneymaker for the network, if not into a top-10-rated powerhouse.

As a Q Score client, CBS is able to use what Schafer calls his Impact Q to get better ad rates for its Saturday series “The District.” Impact Q measures how often people watch a show and how absorbed they are in its plot.

“People are so attentive to ‘The District,’ ” he says, “that many of them end up staying tuned during the commercial break” so they don’t miss any part of the show. “That attention has a halo effect on the brands being advertised,” he says.

Q Score and upstart competitor E-Poll make it easy for TV companies to subscribe because they charge clients as little as $25,000 a year; that’s chump change compared to the millions of dollars a year Nielsen gets from each of its subscriber companies.

At its most basic, the Q Score comes from the response of a representative sample of people who rate performers on a likeability scale. When the sample bestows a high Q Score on a series actor, the actor’s ego may start ballooning to parade-float size, Schafer says. But most of these high Q Scores, he warns, reflect the character being played by the actor on the series — so thesps should take the glory with a grain of salt.

The classic example in the last decade of ego gone wild is David Caruso, who walked away from a starring role on “NYPD Blue” in its first season (1993-94), assuming he could swap his commanding Q Score for a lifetime pass to movie stardom.

“Caruso blew it,” Schafer declares.

Thesp’s first theatricals after “NYPD Blue,” “Kiss of Death” and “Jade,” cratered at the box office, short-circuiting his movie career and driving him back to TV in 1997 to another series role, the title character of a U.S. attorney in CBS’ “Michael Hayes.” That skein tanked in its first season and, after a bunch of nondescript movie parts, Caruso landed the lead in “CSI: Miami,” as a former homicide detective turned criminologist.

“Caruso was smart to take on a similar-type role to ‘NYPD Blue,’ ” Schafer says. “Coming back as a dentist or a doctor probably wouldn’t have worked.”

Now in its second year, and a big hit for CBS, “CSI: Miami” points up another dictum of Schafer.

“The vehicle makes the star, not vice versa,” he says, citing the ascension of William Petersen and Marg Helgenberger, the leads in “CSI,” to Q Score nirvana when their series soared to the top of the Nielsen charts in 2002.

On the cable side, Schafer says four of the shows that stand out among cablers in Impact Q couldn’t be more disparate: Discovery’s “Monster Garage,” HBO’s “The Wire,” CNN’s “Lou Dobbs Moneyline” and Comedy Central’s “South Park.”

As Cartman, the most foul-mouthed of the “South Park” third-graders, might put it, “What the @#$%!”

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