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OVERWORKED BUTTON-PUSHERS CAN MAKE TELEVISION RATINGS LESS ACCURATE

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A three-network study of national television audience measurement released Wedenesday identified problems that range from button-pushing fatigue to failure to monitor outside-the-home viewing.

The 22-month, $1 million, 600-page study, conducted by Statistical Research Inc., was commissioned by the Committee on Nationwide Television Audience Measurement and funded by ABC, CBS and NBC.It made a series of recommendations on areas where the the workings of the A.C. Nielsen Co.'s People Meters could be improved. Nielsen cooperating in the study and John Dimling, executive vice president and director of marketing for Nielsen, said that some of the suggestions already are being put into effect.

One of the major findings in the report concerned declining cooperation rates. More than half the households approached by Nielsen do not agree to have their sets metered and to push buttons to indicate what they are viewing.

"We need to stress that people aren't falling into the cracks, they're jumping into them," said CBS Vice President David Poltrack.

"When you want to ask a non-cooperator why he isn't cooperating, he doesn't want to cooperate," added ABC's Alan Wurtzel.

Poltrack noted that if people want input into television programming, cooperating with audience sampling is the way to get it.

Other problems the study addressed included:

- Fatigue. People Meters currently are installed in 4,000 homes for two years, but button-pushing fatigue strikes some participants before the end of that period. The study recommended reducing participation to one year, if it could be done in a way that was cost effective and met quality standards.

- Metering all sets. In the past, Nielsen metered all active TV sets in a household and put a seal on inactive sets. That policy has evolved to exclude certain classes of sets - those less than five inches, portables, sets owned by boarders, sets in detached buildings. CONTAM urged measuring of all viewing, including in vacation and second homes.

- Measuring children's viewing. Viewing by children under 6 years old is difficult to measure and CONTAM called for a joint industry exploration of a solution.

- Recording visitors' viewing. Visitors to a Nielsen home are supposed to log into the People Meter, but the procedure needs to be simplified.

- Ombudsman. CONTAM proposed that Nielsen establish an ombudsman within its company to set research standards.

"National television audience measurement is the most sophisticated of any media measurement," said Bob Niles, vice president of research for NBC. "The CONTAM study can provide valuable suggestions for the People Meter service, which did not undergo the full range of testing normally asociated with a new service."

Nielsen switched to People Meters in 1987 after a would-be rival, AGB, instituted a similar system. AGB has since dropped out of the market. Previously, Nielsen had measured audiences with a combination of passive meters attached to TV sets and diaries kept by sample households.