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Burns Sics FTC on Nielsen

Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) has taken the fight against Nielsen Media Research's "Local People Meters" to the Federal Trade Commission, saying that if the FTC can't or won't do it, he will introduce legislation.

In a letter to chairman Deborah Platt Majoras, Burns has asked it to investigate whether it has jurisdiction over insuring that "the television ratings industry is run fairly and in the best interest of the public."

Burns also wants the commission to meet with the Media Ratings Council--an industry-backed ratings accreditation body--and the FCC to see whether the council can be given more authority. The MRC was created in the mid-1960's at the direction of Congress. Burns points out that at the same time Congress recommended that MRC, FTC and FCC consult over any future ratings complaints.

If after those meetings "it is found that the present situation cannot be remedied within the existing framework," wrote Burns, "it is my intention to introduce legislation that would mandate specific actions to create an oversight regime to more effectively safeguard the public interest."

Nielsen seeks MRC accreditation, but does not have to have it to launch the service. It has so far launched in Boston (2002), New York (June, 2004), Chicago (August, 2004), and San Francisco (September, 2004), all without prior accreditation, though it was accredited after about a year in Boston and has gotten conditional approval in L.A.

After pressure from activists, minority groups and Fox under the umbrella of the Don't Count Us Out Coalition, Burns held hearings on the LPMs in July. A number of representatives, including from Fox and Hispanic broadcaster Univision, expressed their concerns about the meters, which they argue significantly undercount minority viewers. Fox stations have been particularly hard hit.

Nielsen has conceded some issues with sampling, but says it is working to fix them. But it also argues that the meters are better recording the flight of some of those viewers from broadcast to other media, including cable.

Burns does not appear to be convinced. While arguing that he was "opposed to heavy-handed government regulation of private enterprise," he said he saw a public interest safeguard in his request, having concluded that "Nielsen exercises effectively unchecked monopoly power over the television ratings industry."

Nielsen responded in a statement: "We share Senator Burns' opposition to "heavy-handed government regulation of private enterprise" and believe that the FTC will find that regulation of the ratings industry is unwise. Such regulation is opposed by the vast majority of the media industry because it would slow innovation at a time of rapid change in entertainment viewing habits and invite the politicization of the ratings process. "