Network woes are familar story for Nielsen ratings

Sunday, November 23, 2003

NEW YORK -- Television's biggest mystery this season has nothing to do with what's on the air.

Everyone in the industry is talking about it: Where have all the young viewers gone? Or have they gone anywhere at all?

It's just another chapter in the TV's dysfunctional marriage to the Nielsen ratings, where breaking up would be more painful than staying together.

Nielsen Media Research's claim that prime-time viewing among men aged 18-to-34 has dropped by 7 percent this season is hotly disputed by TV networks, where overall viewership is down this season. The debate has renewed long-running tensions between broadcasters and the company they pay to measure their audience.

Unfit for wired world

Given Nielsen's monopoly, the clash is inevitable. The research company's numbers decide where billions of dollars worth of advertising is spent and whether TV shows -- even entire networks -- live or die.

Several broadcast executives wonder whether Nielsen is unfit for a wired world with hundreds of networks, digital video recorders and impatient channel surfers.

"I do worry about technology's advances being ahead of Nielsen's ability to measure it," said Alan Wurtzel, research president at NBC, which has lost, on average, more than a million viewers a week from last year.

Criticism from the networks grows loud whenever Nielsen detects an unexpectedly large drop in TV audience size.

One of the industry's top number-crunchers, CBS chief researcher David Poltrack, believes this autumn's ratings drop can be tied to 105 men who aren't pushing enough buttons.

Nielsen gathers its ratings through a sample of 5,100 homes nationwide. Among men aged 18-to-24, where the bulk of the viewership decrease is concentrated, that's just 600 people. Poltrack wants Nielsen to investigate whether a subset of these men -- just 105 of them -- are unreliable because they really don't want to participate in Nielsen's study.

The networks are concerned that Nielsen's measurement system, which worked well in the days of three big broadcast networks, is archaic today. Viewership is so small for some of the tiny cable networks that Nielsen can barely offer a reliable picture of who's watching.

Nielsen admits that its sample does not include homes with digital video recorders -- machines like TiVo -- because it can't measure shows that are recorded and watched later. Networks say bypassing these tech-savvy homes means Nielsen is bypassing some of the most dedicated TV viewers, perhaps skewing their survey.

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