Nielsen Plan Would Whack 'Sopranos,' Other Pay Cable Ratings

HBO would probably have a difficult time proving it, but it appears that the broadcast networks may have ordered Nielsen to whack high-profile premium cable TV shows like its "The Sopranos." In a surprising move, Nielsen Media Research Monday said that beginning in January, it would alter the way it reports ratings for premium pay cable networks in a way that will show smaller audience numbers and make it impossible to trend their results for at least another year.

Nielsen said it was making the steps as a way of "improving" how it reports pay cable ratings, but the real question is: Improving them for whom? With "The Sopranos" set to premiere its fifth season in March 7, 2004, the major broadcast networks fear the popular HBO show will make another hit on their ratings. The success of "The Sopranos," in fact, has lead the major broadcast networks to question their fundamental programming and business models and left them struggling to explain HBO's success to advertisers and shareholders alike.



Beginning in January, Nielsen said it no longer would report aggregate ratings for the so-called multiplex versions of premium cable networks that occupy different channels on cable and satellite TV systems. Instead, Nielsen said it would report ratings for each "plex" separately. As a result, Nielsen said it would not be able to report ratings trends for pay cable programs in 2004.

"For example, HBO's 'The Sopranos' with previous years' estimates, the data will not trend, because the historical data from 'The Sopranos' are the aggregate of all the HBO plex feeds. Only time period data for the 'aggregate' ratings bucket of each pay cable network should be compared before and after January 2004," said a Nielsen statement.

The statement did not disclose the rationale for the move, claiming only that it would improve ratings. But Nielsen's new edit rules for premium cable programs is an interesting one, because aggregate ratings are, in fact, a common practice among certain ad-support TV programs. Nationally ad-supported syndicated TV shows that air multiple runs of the same episode during a day or a week do, in fact, tabulate those ratings as if they were a single showing. Those ratings are called gross average audience ratings and without them, many syndicated shows would report smaller numbers. Apparently, that is not as great a concern in the pay cable world, where programmers are not dependent on advertising revenues and therefore look at ratings in a different light.

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