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Ratings Squabble

It's time to remove greed and politics from the debate over Nielsen's new local ratings. That's the message from media-ratings experts, exasperated by the name-calling and political maneuvering over Nielsen's people meter system, which is undergoing a controversial rollout in local markets, such as New York and Los Angeles.

The only legitimate issues, ratings specialists told Congress last week, are how accurate people-meter samples are and how best to improve the technology.

Nielsen, which has used people meters since the late 1980s to gauge national ratings, is now rolling out local people meters (LPMs), an electronic replacement for handwritten diaries, in the country's largest 10 markets to access local-station performance.

The move has come under fire from civil-rights groups and some TV networks. Their complaints address not the technology but the selection of local samples, which they claim don't accurately reflect the community's ethnic makeup. And the debate has spilled into the political arena, because of the importance of minority voters, particularly Hispanics, in this year's elections.

"The impact of Nielsen's actions could be severe," trumpeted Queremos Ser Contados (Don't Count Us Out), a coalition of Hispanic groups unhappy with people meters. "Quite simply, undercounting people of color will inevitably lead to less diversity in programming, have a chilling effect on advertising, and blunt employment opportunities both in front of and behind the camera." NAACP Chairman Julian Bond also has criticized the system.

While there may be legitimate complaints about the people-meter system, the criticism goes beyond its implementation, says George Ivie, chief executive of the Media Rating Council (MRC), the nonprofit group that accredits Nielsen and other media-ratings companies as part of industry self-regulation.

Companies that don't like Nielsen's findings are putting political pressure on Congress to get the accreditation process changed.

"We urge the independence of the council be preserved," says Ivie, "so as to avoid unnecessary politicizing of the auditing process." MRC has had plenty of run-ins with Nielsen. It withheld accreditation for the first local people meter for nine months until the kinks were worked out in fall 2002. MRC also criticized Nielsen for going ahead with local rollouts before the system in each market is accredited.

Despite Ivie's determination to prevent politicization of ratings accreditation, the MRC's tangles with Nielsen provided a measure of validation for Fox and Univision, which had called Nielsen an unregulated monopoly that needs immediate government oversight (see related story, page 10).

Others in the broadcast business question the accuracy of people meters, too. The National Association of Broadcasters, Tribune and CBS have asked for a delay in local rollouts.

Nielsen sees the attacks as defensive posturing about low ratings.

Counters Nielsen Chief Executive Susan Whiting, "We are the umpires of TV, criticized by players who don't like the call. We've never been criticized for ratings that are too high."

Nielsen also has its supporters.

Bob Barocci, chief executive of the Advertising Research Foundation, praised the people-meter system for providing more-accurate ratings than the diary system. Local people meters "will measure the television sources with the lowest ratings more accurately" because some lower-rated programs often receive no diary entries during a quarter hour—or sometimes during an entire program—for key demographic groups.

"This will increase the value of the inventory of cable stations and decrease the value of the inventory of the traditional networks: NBC, Fox, ABC, CBS, for instance," says Barocci. He says the LPM's chief opponents don't like it because ad buyers will now will pay more for cable and less for the traditional networks.

So far, most lawmakers are happy to let the technology roll out while MRC and Nielsen work out problems in individual markets.

"I don't think this will require legislation," says Committee Chairman and former broadcaster Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) Instead, Burns suggests Congress be kept more in the loop through ongoing dialog with the MRC.

Mostly, lawmakers want the warring sides to cool off. Univision President Tom Arnost, for instance, called Nielsen an "unregulated foreign-owned monopoly." Whiting said the anti-LPM effort is a campaign of "disinformation and half-truths" bankrolled by Fox.