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TV's nose counter gets mixed reviews for new ratings gadget

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Advertisers will plunk down about $8.5 billion to the three major television networks - ABC, CBS and NBC - for commercial time during 1987. At the same time, ``people meters,'' which represent the latest in technological gadgetry for measuring audience size, are introducing new uncertainties about how many viewers are actually watching network programs these days.

With billions of dollars in sales at stake, TV advertisers are more than ever concerned about results. So who's watching what - and which network has the biggest audiences - is of paramount importance to the network executives.

It ends up being a gigantic numbers game in which the way the audience size and composition are determined - and the validity of the numbers - can be crucial.

For more than 35 years, A.C. Nielsen Company (now owned by Dun & Bradstreet Corporation) has measured network audiences. In September, Nielsen plans to convert its diary-based Nielsen Television Index to ``people meters'' located in a national sample of 2,000 households. Nielsen has been testing these meters on a national basis for the past three years and plans to expand the number of households measured to 4,000 by September 1988.

The people meter is an electronic device that viewers in designated households activate as they begin and finish watching television. It's a more accurate technique than the diary for measuring national audience composition, according to William S. Hamill, executive vice-president of Nielsen Media Research.

``The diary worked well in simpler times with fewer viewing choices,'' Mr. Hamill says, ``but in today's complex video world of broadcast network programming, independent stations, cable, and VCR, the typical diary keeper finds it hard to record accurately all the household viewing activity.''

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