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Keeping tabs on consumers

Here's what's on NBC research president Alan Wurtzel's wish list: "I'd love to be able to know if the person who watches CNBC at the office during the day goes home and logs on to at night and then watches Will & Grace. You can't get that kind of information today, you have to infer it, and it's very difficult."

But perhaps the most important question that media marketers and buyers alike want answered: Does that person go out the next day and buy any of the products he or she saw advertised on those media platforms the night before?

For years, U.S. media executives have yearned for a so-called "single-source" provider of consumer research and marketing data that could answer such questions. Two weeks ago, hopes were raised that such a provider might be stepping up to the plate: the Netherlands-based VNU.

In a deal inked Dec. 18, VNU bought ACNielsen for $2.3 billion, reuniting the consumer-research company with its once and future co-owned TV-audience-measurement company, Nielsen Media Research. VNU purchased Nielsen Media Research in 1999 for $2.7 billion.

The purchase reflects VNU's determination to become a premiere purveyor of consumer research and information for marketers worldwide, company executives told analysts two weeks ago when the ACNielsen acquisition was signed.

Structurally, ACNielsen and Nielsen Media Research are expected to remain separate co-owned entities under VNU. But company executives say they expect that the two companies will initiate a series of joint projects.

ACNielsen is best known for tracking the buying habits of consumers. VNU Chief Financial Officer Frans Cremers told analysts that, with the addition of ACNielsen, VNU possesses "must-have information for consumer-products companies." Indeed, the company is being almost totally refocused on business-to-business services. It's looking at the possible divestiture of a consumer-magazine division (which has European franchise rights to such titles as Playboy
and Cosmopolitan) and an educational-publishing unit. "We intend to be a one-stop worldwide marketing support" and services company, Cremers notes.

David Poltrack, executive vice president of research at CBS, believes VNU's reuniting of the two Nielsen companies puts it in the best position to develop a research package that links product purchases with TV viewing habits. "If you monitor product sales and TV viewing, you should be able to measure the impact of advertising campaigns," he says. "It's not an easy thing to do but, if anyone should be able to do it," it's the two Nielsens.

Dun & Bradstreet at one time owned both companies before spinning them off into separate publicly traded entities. VNU is paying $36.75 per share for ACNielsen, which amounted to a 49% premium over its closing stock price on Dec. 15, the last business day before the deal was sealed.

ACNielsen is also a force in monitoring the box-office receipts for theatrical films in the U.S. That business meshes nicely with VNU's NRG subsidiary, a dominant player in the test-marketing of films and their promotional trailers. (Indeed, that subsidiary came under fire a few months ago for helping film studios test the appeal of R-rated films to children, a tactic that didn't go over well on Capitol Hill.)

In addition to an array of marketing data, VNU also publishes phone directories and trade publications (including Ad Week, The Hollywood Reporter
and Billboard).

ACNielsen also has TV-ratings services in a slew of markets outside the U.S. Nielsen Media Research is big in Internet-usage measurement with its controlling interest in NetRatings and also owns Monitor Plus, which tracks where advertisers buy TV spots.

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