Burns Supports Oversight for Nielsen at Hearing

Jul 27, 2005  •  Post A Comment

Nielsen Media Research “needs some kind of effective oversight because it is the only game in town,” and the audience measurement watchdog Media Rating Council needs “some teeth,” said Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., at the beginning of a Senate Commerce Committee hearing Wednesday on whether teeth for the MRC should be legislated.

Sen. Burns and four Republican colleagues introduced the FAIR Ratings Act on July 1 to give the MRC more enforcement power.

Sen. Burns was the only Commerce Committee member to question a panel of six industry executives representing various views on whether federal legislation would help or hinder clients’ leverage with Nielsen. “This bill is about accountability,” Sen. Burns said.

Nielsen has found itself increasingly on the defensive about its responsiveness to complaints and criticism from clients since it began rolling out in earnest the Local People Meter service a year ago, which brought client frustration to a boil. So far the LPM service is fully accredited by the MRC in only two of the seven markets in which it is operating: Boston and San Francisco.

Nielsen President and CEO Susan Whiting said her company, which has no competition in the U.S., is listening to multiple, sometimes conflicting voices and that that it works hard to “make everybody happy.” She said Nielsen has agreed to new services being audited before being launched but said that if — as Sen. Burns’ bill calls for and as some clients are demanding — full accreditation were a pre-launch requirement, Nielsen would be caught in a Catch-22: being unable to launch a new service without accreditation of a sample, and being unable to qualify for accreditation of a sample without being able to launch the service and tweak the sample.

George Ivie, executive director and CEO of the MRC, said Nielsen has signaled its informal agreement with a voluntary code of conduct he proposed and hopes to have wrapped up by mid-October. Mr. Ivie said the code represents “our key solution to situations we face.”

“It adds detail and formal structure” to the essentially voluntary MRC process, said Mr. Ivie, who noted that Nielsen agreed to pre-launch audits in the future only after launching LPM service in Washington and Philadelphia without audits and over the pleas of some 17 networks and station groups for full accreditation prior to launch

Tribune Broadcasting President Pat Mullen, who spearheaded the accreditation-first plea, said “Had Nielsen been more responsive, I doubt we would be here today.”

“Users need to know what is going on and need to know before [new products] hit the market, not after,” said Gale Metzger, a Nielsen alumnus who headed a rival service that failed to find enough financial backing for the SMART ratings lab in the ’90s.

Univision Research Executive VP Ceril Shagrin said her company has taken a neutral position on the Burns bill, but she expressed support for the MRC process. Ms. Shagrin is chairman of the MRC’s TV committee.

Kathy Crawford, MindShare Worldwide’s local broadcast president, said it’s the four-decades-old MRC and voting and procedures that need overhauling because of how dramatically the TV landscape has changed business since Congress formed the MRC without giving it powers of enforcement.

She complained that the criticisms of Nielsen had been “blown out of proportion into a would-be policy debate” and said “government intervention usually makes matters worse.”

Congress breaks Friday for the rest of the summer, so it was not immediately clear what happens next and when.