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Storm of Protest

Nielsen Media Research and WJLA-TV Washington got into a dust-up last week over a promo touting the station's Hurricane Isabel coverage. Jack Loftus, Nielsen vice president of communications, told BROADCASTING CABLE that the promo was based on bogus information and that the company had asked the station to stop running it.

At press time, WJLA-TV President and General Manager Chris Pike said he hadn't officially been asked yet, but he was not planning to pull the spot.

Pike said that, after Nielsen initially called to question the spot, he told them that, if there was a ratings reference in the promo, "we would take it out. There was no ratings reference in it, and we're going to continue to run it for some time."

Washington was one of the markets whose ratings for Sept. 18, and some days after, were excluded because of insufficient sample size due to widespread power outages.

According to Nielsen, WJLA-TV was one of two stations in the market to request the ratings information anyway, which Nielsen supplied with the caveat that it was for background and internal use only. Somehow, those Nielsen numbers got into the hands of a Washington Times reporter and into a story about WJLA-TV's coverage. Pike said it didn't come from him. "I shared it with a limited group of my staff to show them that their hard work and effort had paid off."

Once the Times piece was out, however, WJLA-TV decided to use the story's headline, "WJLA's Isabel Coverage Wins Big," and a glowing quote.

Loftus wouldn't speculate on how the information got out but said, "Whoever gave that data to the news media, by characterizing it as Nielsen ratings, really released bogus data designed to mislead the market." He said Nielsen will investigate.

On the same day as Nielsen's call to WJLA-TV, Nielsen put out a release identifying markets some of whose ratings had been excluded due to the storm, including a warning that what data was available "should not be used for buying, selling and promotional purposes."

In at least two of those markets—Norfolk and Richmond, Va.—there was more than promos to worry about. Both were still without any Nielsen data as of last Thursday, well into the new season's first week. Other markets that had some portion of ratings data excluded were Raleigh-Durham, N.C., Baltimore and the above-mentioned Washington.

On the cable side, just getting back on line was job one. Operators in southern Virginia and northern North Carolina continue to try to return service to their customers. Cities like Elizabeth City, N.C., were among the hardest hit, with some residents predicted to be without power until next month. Meanwhile, Adelphia, Comcast and Cox have been working hard to return service.

Dell Hanley, Adelphia vice president for Virginia, Maryland and Tennessee, said the goal is to make sure cable service follows closely behind the return of power. He estimates that, on Sept. 19, about 220,000 subs were without cable service, down to 15,000 a week later. Portable and backup generators have been in place for headends; now it's a matter of rebuilding 400 miles of infrastructure.

According to Cox Cable, about 300,000 of the 400,000 customers served by its Hampton Roads, Va., plant have service, with repair crews from other Cox systems pitching in.

Additional reporting by Ken Kerschbaumer