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FTC Urged to Watch Nielsen

The Hill continued to put pressure on the Federal Trade Commission to exercise oversight of Nielsen Media Research, or at least to provide an answer on how much oversight it does or doesn't already have.

The latest to weigh in is Senator Gordon Smith (R-Ore.), chairman of the Subcommittee on Trade, Tourism and Economic Development, who said he may craft legislation on government oversight of the ratings service if such oversight does not currently exist.

In a letter to Chairman Deborah Platt Majoras, Smith says that the "vital public good," of a fair and accurate ratings system is "in the hands of a monopoly that is not subject to independent oversight.... There is currently no entity capable of holding Nielsen to account," he wrote Majoras, arguing that if the FTC concludes it does not have the statutory authority to do so, he will draft a bill that will give it the power.

The Media Ratings Council does provide accreditation to various ratings services, including Nielsen. It was created by Congress in the 1960's in the wake of a ratings scandal.

The MRC has only fully accredited one market -- Boston -- of the five currently employing the meters, saying that it still has fault-rate and other issues. Critics point out that Nielsen is free to deploy the meters with or without accreditation and says the MRC doesn't have the bite to back up its bark.

Majoras has been hearing a lot from Congress on Nielsen. Senator Conrad Burns sent a letter last fall asking what Burns' concern was echoed in a letter last week from a mix of House members.

Helping to turn up the heat is the Don't Count Us Out Coalition, which charges that Nielsen's new Local People Meters seriously undercount minority broadcast viewing, to the detriment of broadcasters, advertisers and minority programmers.

Various coalition members are meeting Tuesday with legislators, accompanied by the group's newly minted executive director Cynthia Jasso-Rotunno.
Nielsen concedes there have been some problems with fault rates (operator error) with the new meters, but says it is working to fix the problem and investing in new research. Nielsen also argues that some of the fall-off in minority ratings reflects those viewers' move to other media, including cable.
In reponse to the letter from House members to the FTC, Nielsen said yesterday that ramping-up government oversight is at best unnecessary and at worst an impediment to innovation.