Media firms join forces to study TV habits

ByDavid Lieberman, USA TODAY
September 10, 2009, 9:22 PM

NEW YORK -- Fourteen of the USA's largest television programmers, advertisers and ad buyers gave the clearest sign to date on Thursday that the audience measurement system they depend on — long dominated by Nielsen Media — needs to be overhauled for the digital era.

CBS, Disney, NBC Universal, News Corp., Omnicom and Time Warner are among the companies backing the Coalition for Innovative Media Measurement, which will study new ways to measure TV consumption.

That's become a challenge as viewers increasingly watch shows on digital video recorders, the Internet and handheld devices that haven't traditionally factored in to Nielsen's ratings.

"The members all have some skin in the game," says Alan Wurtzel, president of research at NBC Universal. "It's all about our businesses and the billions of dollars that ride on accurate measurement. And we believe it's time to take our future into our own hands."

Researchers want to know whether people are losing their appetite for TV, or just watching shows outside the living room. Nielsen found that CBS was the only major broadcaster whose audience increased in the season that ended in May.

The pressure to find viewers is especially intense as ad sales plummet. They fell 12.8% to $9.6 billion in the second quarter vs. the same period last year, according to the Television Bureau of Advertising.

But representatives of the new group denied that they have Nielsen in their cross hairs.

"We expect that Nielsen and other media measurement firms will want to respond to our (requests for proposals)," says Colleen Fahey Rush, MTV Networks' executive vice president for strategic insights and research. "If they apply for membership, the (coalition) board will consider them as they would any other applicant."

Nielsen, for its part, will "need some more information," spokesman Gary Holmes says. "We share all of the objectives of the leaders of the coalition."

The new group expects to hire an executive director soon and, by year's end, will offer contracts for research groups to answer specific questions.

It will give firms a chance "to address the industry's needs and get preliminary funding for this innovation," says Dave Poltrack, CBS chief research officer. "The decision to participate in any commercial service that comes out of this would be made on a company-by-company basis."

Representatives wouldn't say how much backers will invest in the coalition and its research.

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