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Fox Versus Nielsen

Networks and advertisers have complained about Nielsen ratings for years, but News Corp. Deputy COO and Fox TV Stations Chairman Lachlan Murdoch is trying to do something about it. Earlier this year, Murdoch led a small revolt in big markets, including New York and Los Angeles, when Nielsen Media Research launched its local people meters (LPMs). He claimed the new system undercounted minority viewers, and in time, he got support from prominent black and Hispanic leaders who became convinced of the same thing.

Generally, broadcasters believe, LPMs indicate more cable viewing than the old diary system did. The diaries, some researchers believe, are unreliable because viewers don't fill them out as they go along. Consequently, critics say, minorities might be prone to fill in UPN or Univision just out of habit rather than reality.

Nielsen claims the people meter more accurately shows how the total audience, including blacks and Hispanics, is spread around on various channels.

But with big Fox and UPN outlets in New York that depend on large minority audiences, News Corp. President and COO Peter Chernin and Murdoch met with Nielsen CEO Susan Whiting in an attempt to persuade the ratings company to delay the LPM.

Nielsen went ahead anyway, though it delayed the rollout in New York for approximately a month. For a while, it will continue to provide stations and advertisers the old diary ratings along with the LPM numbers. In addition to Boston, where the LPM was first tested, the technology has now been rolled out in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and San Francisco. Nielsen wants to get the LPM in the top 10 markets within two years.

News Corp. provided financial support and other backing to Don't Count Us Out, a minority-advocacy coalition, in its efforts to stop the new ratings-measurement technology. The battle between Don't Count Us Out and Nielsen grew heated for a while, but since the LPM demos were tweaked, the uproar has largely gone away. Nielsen has also received high-profile minority support from the NAACP's CEO, Kweisi Mfume.

"All we want is an accurate system," Murdoch says. "When we started to see the overlay of the diaries and the local-people-meter coverage, it showed huge swings within specifically ethnic and young audiences. We started asking a lot of questions, and they were difficult questions, I think, for Nielsen to answer."

Murdoch favors the "personal people meter" (PPM) that Arbitron, mostly known as a radio-ratings company, has been testing in Philadelphia with Nielsen's financial cooperation. He's not alone. Earlier this month, Ted Woerhrle, vice president of marketing for Procter & Gamble, North America, told the Association of National Advertisers Conference that the Arbitron unit was "one very big step" in audience measurement. Nary a word from him about Nielsen.

The pager-size PPM records code from any nearby TV's audio signal and requires a viewer to simply carry it around throughout a day and put it back in its port at night. The PPM "looks like it can solve a lot of the problems we're talking about," Murdoch says.

Nielsen won't comment on Murdoch's complaints. However, the ratings company is going forward with Arbitron to extend the PPM test to Houston, where the potential Hispanic audience is larger, an Arbitron spokesman says. If that test is successful, it would be up to Nielsen to partner with Arbitron for a second phase, which would take the PPM to markets 10-60. If Nielsen says "no go," though, Arbitron has indicated it can't sustain the service by itself.