LONDON: It's a brave interloper that confronts AC Nielsen on its US home patch. As Sir Bernard Audley, chairman of AGB , the globe's number two media research company back in the late 1980s, discovered to his cost. And that of the company's shareholders and staff.

But as Laurence Peter, formulator of the Peter Principle, famously opined: "History repeats itself because nobody listens."

Including, it seems, Taylor Nelson Sofres, which has recently ventured into Nielsen's homeland and begun striking deals with cable-TV and satellite-TV operators.

And like AGB before it, TNS has a potentially war-winning weapon.

It measures the change in viewing patterns when programs move to a commercial break. Second-by-second tracking of TV viewing patterns enables the collection of viewing data for commercials - not, as is presently the case, just the programs in which they feature.

Says TNS Media Research US chief operating officer George Shababb: "There is a need for advertisers to understand how TV as a medium is evolving, and, as a result, how they can use the medium most effectively."

Tracey Sheppach, Starcom USA vp/video innovations director agrees: "Advertisers and their agencies are clamoring for more accountable data. I don't think sitting back and waiting for the networks to provide the solution for us is the optimal approach."

Even Nielsen acknowledges the promise of such data: "We think there is potential in this space, and are actively investing in it ourselves," claims a spokesman.

"We are not sure if this can be a viable, stand-alone business, but if we can combine it with our existing ratings, we might be able to offer our clients valuable insights."

  • For Palaeontologists Only.
    In the earlier ill-fated foray into Nielsen territory the circumstances were very different.

    Nielsen, near-impregnable in the US at the time, was then owned by Dunn & Bradstreet and able to muster just about every favor it could call-in to repel the marauding Brits armed with their [then] groundbreaking electronic PeopleMeters.

    TNS ceo Graham Kirkham, himself an AGB executive back in the 80s, recalls the company's stateside rout: "Bernard [Audley] began to believe his own propaganda".

    This fatal flaw resulted in the hemorrhaging of AGB's liquid assets and its subsequent ingestion into the maw of infamous robber baron Robert Maxwell.

    In the wake of Maxwell's mysterious death in November 1991, the wreckage of AGB was eventually reincarnated as Taylor Nelson, which swiftly established itself on the global scene after merging with French firm Sofres. However, it made no attempt to replicate Audley's ill-fated foray into stateside TV audience measurement.

    Until now.

    Nielsen, although still the largest player by far in the US TV ratings market, is no longer dominant force it was in the 80s and is currently enduring a barrrage of criticism from advertisers, agencies and media owners.

    An innovative alternative might not prove unwelcome.

    Data sourced from Wall Street Journal Online; additional content by WARC staff