MEDIA AGENCIES: The Ratings Race

Be honest. If you could vote for or against Nielsen as a rating system every four years, would you? This assumes that ratings would be more accurate and that your brand-building budgets would oblige you to take part in the process as we take part in our democracy.

While the democratic system has its flaws, it has served our country well for more than two centuries. Something of that simple, brilliant method should guide our broadcast system. That it doesn’t–that Nielsen Media Research has been the sole determinant of audience ratings for 40-plus years–is a comment on how we as communicators have turned over a critical part of media selection to a single, unchallenged source.

The fact is, Nielsen has become coin-of-the-realm in the ratings game. Research is almost entirely quantitative. Better educated and more affluent viewers are widely believed to be chronically underrepresented, and the networks have continued to sell and program to a late ’90s marketplace using data that was rudimentary even in the late ’60s.

One company that would like to unseat Nielsen is Statistical Research, Inc. and its SMART (systems for measuring and reporting television) ratings lab. Since Nielsen reported a drop of

1 million viewers last February and caused the networks to go ballistic, SMART thinks the timing is right.

So the networks dug into their pockets and promptly funded a $40 million START experiment in Philadelphia, with the unspoken hope that SMART research will boost their numbers–and their revenues. The real issue is whether a low-awareness research company, best known for measuring radio audiences, can win over America’s middle management and oust Nielsen, or, failing that, become an affordable second source for advertisers.

I don’t believe it can or will. Nielsen’s clients have scarce resources dedicated to research. Splitting them with a second company would only diminish what are barely sufficient monies on one company’s data. The quantity of the research would be reduced, resulting in even less reliable information than one properly funded company can produce. In addition, most media planners acknowledge that declines in network viewing are inevitable as cable choices and home-computer usage both increase. Nielsen has proven momentum in the marketplace and the technical know-how to appease the industry when it needs to. And SMART numbers aren’t likely to rise significantly this spring. If they don’t, SRI’s network support will melt away faster than snow.

For some time I’ve believed the only alternative to Nielsen is a competition every four years, open to all research and communications companies; each ‘candidate’ would offer a plan for policy methods and market categories. A committee of top officers representing the networks, ad agencies and independent media services would choose a company, based on performance and qualitative data. This committee would change with each ‘election.’

Networks, agencies and services would quickly find a comfort level with a methodology they had selected and recommended, and could closely monitor. The ratings provider would work hard to perform well, knowing it could be replaced by a more innovative competitor in four years time. Advertisers would learn to live with new research bases; they’d also have a solid rationale based on qualitative data for sponsoring quality programming, instead of just buying by the numbers for the lowest common denominator.

Ultimately, as in any democracy, the consumer would benefit most, as commercial television adjusts its horizons and programs to counter the growing attention to specialty networks, the Internet and other interactive home media.

Would Nielsen win on a level playing field open to all? Maybe, maybe not. Whoever is elected now could welcome in a non-intrusive hands-off system by the year 2000–and it won’t be Orwellian paraphernalia, like wrist bracelets. User-friendly hardware will undoubtedly replace people meters to measure the high-definition and digital transmissions of the future. If micro-marketing was a ’90s innovation that’s been embraced by large and small advertisers all over America, micro-media planning can become a reality in the new millennium.

Walter Staab is chairman of SFM Media Corp., New York.

Copyright ASM Communications, Inc. (1997) ALL RIGHTS RESERVED