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Burns Bill Toughens Ratings Oversight

Four Senators, led by Conrad Burns, were planning to introduce a bill Friday, the Fairness and Accuracy in Ratings--or FAIR--Act that would require Media Ratings Council accreditation before any new ratings system--like Nielsen's local people meters--could be rolled out, or any changes made to an existing system.

Currently the industry-backed council's accreditation is not required. This would make it mandatory not only for Nielsen, but for any other ratings system that launches.

Burns held hearings on Nielsen's local people meters last year following criticism that the meters undercounted minorities and young people. Fox, for one, was a major critic after some of its owned stations suffered ratings fall-offs from the meters.

Nielsen last week said it would pay for an audit of any future LPM markets, which most immediately include Detroit, Dallas, and Atlanta, and give it to the MRC before it rolls out the service. But it did not say it would wait for accreditation before proceeding with those roll-outs, which spokesman Jack Loftus said the MRC never asked it to do.

The bill's co-sponsors are Burns (R-Mont.), George Allen (R-Va.) Olympia Snowe (R-Me.), and Mel Martinez (R-Fla.).

In April, Burns threatened legislation.

Saying he was disappointed in a Federal Trade Commission's decision that Nielsen Media Research's rollout of "Local People Meters" required no commission intervention, Burns said he would not hesitate to introduce legislation giving the FTC that authority "should the evidence indicate that it would be in the public interest to do so."

We are disappointed that political leaders who espouse free market principles would use the power of the federal government to choose sides in a commercial dispute among private businesses," said Nielsen in a statement. "Contrary to the claims of its supporters, this bill means more federal regulation of television, more bureaucracy, slower introduction of new technology, higher costs, less competition, and less accurate ratings.  It would also violate antitrust laws and transform the Media Rating Council into a virtual arm of the federal government.  We have urged the bill’s sponsors to reconsider their support of this bill in light of its damaging impact on the entire television industry."

Cynthia J. Rotunno, Executive Director of The Don't Count Us Out Coalition, which Fox helped fund to fight the meters, called the bill "simple and common sense, saying, "This legislation reinforces the MRC so that it can perform the function Congress intended it to over forty years ago and has the necessary authority to ensure that TV ratings are accurate."

Nielsen said that Burns planned a one-day hearing on the bill sometime this month.

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.