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D.C. TV's Protest Nielsen

Washington affiliates/owned stations of all the networks (and netlets) except NBC are banding together to push for the delay of Nielsen Media Research’s new  electronic Local People Meter (LPM) ratings system, slated to roll out in the market June 2.  

Nielsen has caught flak from some broadcasters, particularly Fox and UPN stations, for the LPMs, which have had problems with undercounting minorities and high fault rates (operator errors in logging viewing) among Hispanics, African Americans, young viewers and large households.

Washington broadcasters say they want the system fixed before it becomes ad sales currency in the market. “We only have one source of revenue, advertising, so we scrutinize the ratings carefully,” says Jerald Fritz, senior VP of legal and strategic affairs for Allbritton Communications, owner of ABC affiliate WJLA. “If the numbers are wrong, we will make the wrong choices.”

The group, which also included representatives of Gannett Broadcasting, Fox Television Stations and Tribune Broadcasting, said they want Nielsen to halt the LPM roll-out until the system receives full accreditation from the Media Ratings Council, the client-backed independent overseer of Nielsen ratings.

The MRC, they said, will not audit the Washington system until late September. “What in the world justifies the rush to launch a flawed system,” Fritz said.

All the owners are under contract with Nielsen for the new system as part of group-wide deals.

The absence of NBC's WRC-TV from the group didn't mean the network didn't have LPM issues. "We do have concerns with the current sample composition as it relates to the planned roll out of the LPMs, " said a spokeswoman, "but believe it is more effective to deal with these business issues through direct discussions with Nielsen."

According to LPM data from the week of May 15 (stations got meter data from D.C. for May, though the numbers are not slated to become the official ratings currency until June), 25% of Hispanics in the Nielsen sample failed to register collectable data, compared to 11% of non-Hispanics, while 17% of African-Americans faulted out, compared to 10.6% among non-African American households, the stations. Among larger families, 23% did not register data, compared to 7.6% among smaller households.

Nielsen has been rolling out the meters in major markets over the past year, with its primary opponent a group, backed by Fox, calling itself the "Don't Count Us Out" coalition. So far, the MRC has given full approval to LPMs in Boston and San Francisco, but not in New York and Los Angeles.

Ever since the extent of Fox's backing of the Don't Count Us Out group became widely publicized, it has been relatively quiet and was not mentioned or represented in the release announcing the station protest of the meters. Unusual, since it has previously blanketed the media press corps with information on protests in New York, L.A., and wherever and whenever the meters were being installed.

Fritz said the Washington stations see this as a local broadcast issue, not a single-station or Don’t Count Us Out problem. “We have been reticent to publicly engage, but our frustration is so palpable,” said Shawn Sheehan, VP of Tribune.

If Nielsen does not delay the rollout, the broadcast executives said, they would advocate more government oversight, perhaps from the FTC or FCC, that would give the MRC more authority over Nielsen.

But Fritz stressed that the group would prefer not to involve the government. “This is something we can handle within our own family, the broadcast industry and the television industry,” he said.

Nielsen is sticking by the LPMs and its deployment plan. "Greater accuracy has brought changes in ratings and we understand that it is hard for some companies to adapt to change," the company said.

Nielsen says LPMs "are making Washington, D.C.’s local television ratings more accurate and more representative of the local population than ever before" and the sample is larger and includes more minority households than the old meter and diary system.

To rebut the broadcasters claims of high fault rates, Nielsen pointed to data from the first two weeks in May, which report slightly lower faulting in African American and Hispanic households.