Nets Lament Turner's Ratings Move


For years, Turner Broadcasting System Inc. has acted as a central
ratings-data source on behalf of the cable industry, regularly supplying the
numbers to the media as a courtesy.

But this year, it will radically change the type of data it dispenses -- a
move that will cast its large networks in a favorable light.

Turner's plans have research chiefs at small and midsized networks crying
foul. They charged that the viewership information Turner intends to provide in
2003 is self-promoting data, rather than information that gives a boost to the
entire cable industry.

That's because the new type kind of information Turner plans to hand out --
national ratings and audience-delivery data from Nielsen Media Research -- will
be geared toward well-distributed services such as Turner Network Television and
TBS Superstation, each of which in more than 87 million homes. It would also
provide such services with an advantage.

Putting a "spin" on ratings data, or touting numbers in viewership categories
that make one's network look good, is a time-honored TV tradition. But some
Turner rivals claimed that the programmer's new strategy, in terms of the
information it will now purvey to the press, goes a bit too far.

Meanwhile, small and midsized networks -- those in only in 30 million to 50
million homes, for example -- said they expect to fall to the very bottom of
some of the viewership lists that Turner will soon provide.

At a December press briefing in New York, Turner officials first disclosed
that starting this year, they would change the type of Nielsen information the
company has routinely released to the press. Turner would start providing data
on cable networks based on the total TV universe, or national ratings, rather
than coverage-area ratings, which encompass just the pay TV universe.

When a cable network's coverage-area rating is converted to a national
rating, it drops. That's because coverage-area ratings are calculated as a
percent of a network's actual distribution, while a national rating is a
percentage of all 106.7 million U.S. TV households. As such, the less
distribution a given network has, the more its rating would decrease when its
numbers are tallied on a national basis.

For example, in October, 27.5 million-subscriber SoapNet, part of ABC Cable,
posted a 0.4 rating within its universe during primetime, according to Nielsen.
That rating would drop to a 0.1 on a national basis -- the reporting method
Turner plans employ this year.

A network with a 0.1 coverage-area rating could see its national rating
depicted as just a hash mark -- too small to count.