Nielsen Says No to Demand to Halt LPMs

Jun 6, 2005  •  Post A Comment

Nearly 1½ years into the war of well-worn words over the tally of minority viewing and fault rates with Nielsen Media Research’s new Local People Meter service, 18 Nielsen television clients have issued a new rallying cry: No more LPM rollouts until the existing LPM samples are fully accredited.

That’s a non-negotiable issue, replied Nielsen.

In a May 27 letter to the broadcasters, Nielsen President and CEO Susan Whiting replied that the plea for “mandatory, prior MRC accreditation raises considerable antitrust questions.”

So far, Boston and San Francisco are the only two LPM markets that have been fully accredited by the Media Rating Council, the congressionally mandated watchdog agency for the media research industry. New York, Los Angeles and Chicago have received only conditional accreditation from the MRC.

Nielsen spokesman Jack Loftus likened accreditation to the granting of permission. “We don’t need permission to offer a service,” he said. “You don’t need permission before you sell something. The marketplace will decide whether to buy something or not.”

However, Nielsen has no competition in the TV ratings research game in this country, and its status as a natural monopoly has been a source of irritation to clients who feel they are left with little leverage except to complain or to not buy the data they need to set their advertising rates.

That frustration has led to politicized protests and the threat of congressional intervention and federal legislation to give the MRC enforcement teeth. It has also led to an exploration, organized by the trade group Advertising Research Foundation, of how media companies in other countries encourage competition.

In February, Nielsen announced an unprecedented set of initiatives in response to a wide range of clients’ complaints. But the standoff over the LPM service has remained vexing.

Last week’s offensive was launched by Tribune Broadcasting, Gannett Broadcasting, Post-Newsweek, NBC-Universal Television Stations, LIN-TV, Bar- rington Broadcasting, Liberty Corp., Fox Television Stations, Cox Television, Allbritton Communications, Fisher Communications, the Dispatch Broadcast Group, Belo, Emmis Communications, Media General Broadcast Group, E.W. Scripps and CBS. Hearst-Argyle also was aboard, but its name was mistakenly omitted from the signatory list.

Stations owned by Allbritton, Gannett, Tribune and Fox in Washington the previous week had failed to convince Nielsen to delay the LPM conversion in the nation’s capital and Philadelphia, where the new meters-only service was to become the sole TV ratings service June 2.

Nielsen announced last week a reprieve of four weeks. The old service now will be decommissioned in those two markets June 30. No ifs, ands or buts, said Nielsen’s Mr. Loftus, “June 30 is a go.”

“I welcome their decision to delay, although I’m very disappointed that the reasons they’ve given for delay are not the problems we’ve pointed out,” said Patrick Mullen, president of Tribune Broadcasting.

Mr. Mullen was the author of a May 25 letter, signed by the 18 media companies, declaring to Nielsen President and CEO Susan Whiting, “Flaws in the system must be repaired before LPM service is expanded.”

“I don’t believe that they can correct the problems in a month’s time,” Mr. Mullen said.

Mr. Loftus argued, “You have to get the service up and running before you can get it audited.”

Meanwhile, MRC Executive Director George Ivie said his agency, independent of the broadcasters’ protests, notified Nielsen recently that it had failed to properly disclose demographic audience estimate impact data in advance in Washington and Philadelphia.

“We didn’t mention the word ‘delay,’ we didn’t mention the word ‘broadcaster,'” Mr. Ivie said. “All we said [to Nielsen] was: Looking at your implementation in Washington and Philadelphia, it doesn’t look like you disclosed demographic audience estimate impact data in advance to your clients, and that would be a problem with our standards. To their credit, they looked at it and said, ‘That could be a problem so we should delay.'”

Nielsen said the four-week delay in Washington and Philadelphia will allow local broadcasters to compare two months’ worth of ratings data, in addition to the demographic data collected via paper diaries during the May sweeps rating period.

“The clients can see the impact for themselves,” Mr. Ivie said. He said the 40-year-old standard Nielsen was deemed to have violated was written to ensure clients would not be surprised by changes in data that result from “significant” change to the process of compiling that data.

“How we handled it is long prescribed. It’s not a new thing,” Mr. Ivie said. “That’s very important. This was not driven by anything except the standard.”

He declined to comment on the complaints made public last week by the broadcasters, who were described as exasperated.

“It’s a fray I shouldn’t get into,” he said. “I don’t represent one particular interest.”

Meanwhile, LPMs are next headed for Detroit (where the city council recently passed a resolution praising LPMs) and Dallas later this year-or early in 2006, if adjustment is made to allow Nielsen to show at least two months of demographic audience estimate impact data.

Nielsen’s timetable calls for Atlanta to be converted LPMs by the end of 2006, which would fill out the Top 10 TV markets in the country.