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Burns May Re-Assess Ratings Bill

Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) Wednesday said he remains committed to legislation aimed at settling TV industry disputes over ratings, but told reporters he might back away from a provision that would require Nielsen or others to obtain accreditation from the Media Ratings Council before rolling out or changing new product.

Due to a crush of competing hearings and other obligations before lawmakers leave Washington for the August break, Burns, who called the full Commerce Committee hearing, was the only Senator to participate in it, though the room was packed with onlookers.

“I introduced a bill because I wanted a solution to the problem and I didn’t see that voluntary efforts were making any progress at all,” he said during a Senate Commerce Committee hearing on his bill.

Burn’s reassessment came after Nielsen CEO Susan Whiting and MRC Executive Director George Ivie both indicated that agreement on a voluntary code could be reached, requiring audits for potential problems, which Nielsen has agreed to permit before rolling out new products.

Whiting maintained her opposition to any accreditation requirement and Ivie took no position on the need for mandatory accreditation or for a bill, saying his priorities were agreement on audits before rollout and on a new code of conduct. Currently, ratings services’ cooperation with the MRC is voluntary.

Whiting said waiting on MRC accreditation can take a year or more because the competing constituencies of MRC members make disagreements hard to solve.

The resulting delay would prevent a rating service from recouping costly investments in new products and would force advertisers and other users of ratings to rely on measurements generated by outdated measurement techniques,” she said.

“Nielsen must remain independent of competing agendas of constituents,” she said. Requiring accreditation would slow innovation to a crawl.”

Whiting's pledge to at least submit new products to MRC audits did little to sway her critics, which include some major broadcasters upset that LPMs show TV station ratings declining at a more rapid pace than Nielsen’s diary system indicated and some minority groups, which claim that LPMs ratings undercount viewership of blacks and Hispanics.

Nielsen has rolled out LPMs in several New York, Boston, Washington, Philadephia, Los Angeles and some other large markets, but continues to rely on diaries in smaller markets. Burns said he wanted to make sure Nielsen reviewed its diary system, as MRC requested, to make sure that the rural viewers in his state were not being short-changed

“The measurement system we have today in the largest television markets is not worthy of public trust," said Tribune Broadcasting President Patrick J. Mullen.

Rev. Jacques DeGraff, associate Pastor of the Canaan Baptist Church of Harlem and a member of the Don’t Count Us Out Coalition, said Whiting offered little more than “glib intransigence” and was more convinced of the need for legislation than ever.

Supporting Nielsen’s rollout of LPMs are a slew of cable networks that the technology indicates are enjoying improved ratings and advertisers hungry for the next-day ratings on their spots.

“We need to know that our clients are getting what they pay for,” said Kathy Crawford, president of local broadcast for MindShare, a company that advises advertisers on media buys.