Opponents Gird for Ratings Fight

Jul 25, 2005  •  Post A Comment

There was strenuous lobbying on Capitol Hill last week as Nielsen Media Research and its critics laid before a Senate committee the groundwork for what is shaping up as an important hearing on proposed legislation concerning the way television audiences are measured.

On one side of the issue are Nielsen and others who are fearful of government meddling in the ratings business. On the other side are Nielsen’s critics, who are split between those who want government oversight and those who don’t like the way Nielson operates but also are concerned about government interference.

The hearing, before the Senate Commerce Committee, is Wednesday.

There are now two bills before Congress.

One is the Fairness and Accuracy in Ratings Act, which was submitted July 1 by Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont. It would require accreditation of an audience research service by the Media Rating Council before data from that service could be sold.

A second bill, submitted in the House, is the Television Viewer Protection Act of 2005. It was put forward by Republican Reps. Pete Sessions of Texas and Vito Fossella of New York.

Both bills are in reaction to criticism over the past year of Nielsen’s rollout of Local People Meter ratings technology, which replaced a diary system that required the viewer to recall what he or she had seen and list it. In the face of complaints, Nielsen has undertaken a number of initiatives designed to mollify its clients and critics. The research company argues that the two bills would effectively render the MRC a quasi-government agency and promote government interference in what is a commercial dispute between Nielsen and some of its clients, something the Federal Trade Commission declined to do last year.

Nielsen spokesman Jack Loftus said, “We don’t see the need for legislation. We are working with the MRC. We believe we have made progress. We have already committed to the audit process before launch.”

Nielsen’s critics have long complained that the ratings company has no competition and is slow to respond to clients’ complaints. They charge that it is Nielsen’s arrogance that has opened the door to the government getting involved.

“People who behave without humility will eventually find themselves facing a comeuppance,” said one lawyer for the TV industry. “When you’ve got a monopolist like Nielsen, sometimes the only way to get their attention is to hit ’em upside the head with a board. That’s what Conrad Burns is doing.”

The Don’t Count Us Out coalition, a self-described grassroots movement that was created by Glover Park Group, a Washington firm founded by former White House spokesman Joe Lockhart and other high-profile political operatives and primarily funded by News Corp., first raised questions about the LPM technology. The group charged that it undercounts viewing by African Americans and Hispanics.

Others are also supporting legislation as a counter to the power of Nielsen. “Shame on us,” said Shaun Sheehan, a Tribune VP and the company’s Washington lobbyist. “We allowed ourselves to get in the position where we only have one supplier.”

George Ivie is executive director and CEO of the watchdog Media Rating Council, which since the ’60s has been under a federal mandate to set ratings standards. It has no legal authority to prevent a company that doesn’t meet its standards from selling its services. He declined to comment for this article. However, it is known that he has been quietly circulating a proposed voluntary code of conduct that would call for an audit, not accreditation of services, before a rating service could sell its data.

The need for a stronger voluntary effort was echoed in a letter to Sen. Burns from National Association of Broadcasters President Eddie Fritts. Mr. Fritts wrote last week that research products “should be fully audited and the methods … should be made sufficiently transparent prior to their use in the marketplace.” Mr. Fritts said that “in the absence of voluntary resolution, we wish to voice our support for [Sen. Burns’ bill] S. 1372.”

“Those are code words for ‘there may be other ways to fix this problem,'” said a TV industry lawyer.

Among those planning to attend Wednesday’s hearing by the Senate Commerce Committee -which will be Webcast-will be Cardiss Collins, the former Illinois congresswoman who chairs the Independent Task Force on Television Measurement. Last week she argued that Sen. Burns’ bill could pose a danger to “affordable local ratings to Spanish-language stations. That is because existing services like the Nielsen Hispanic Station Index-whose samples are fairly small and combine data from other samples-cannot be accredited by the Media Rating Council. If the bills become law, Nielsen would have to shut down these services and eliminate the only available ratings to these clients.”

The task force has made recommendations to Nielsen about how to improve collection of data from some of the traditionally high-fault demographic groups. It has expressed fears that Sen. Burns’ bill could stifle improvements by requiring accreditation for such measures as increased personal coaching by Nielsen in problematic households. “We don’t want any of that hampered,” said Suzanna Valdez, a member of the 21-person task force.

No one wants to speculate about the outcome of the hearings, but the TV lawyer said, “I think there are results short of legislation that would solve the problem.”

Opposition From Comcast

Comcast Spotlight, the cable giant’s ad sales arm, made known its opposition to the legislation and its support of Nielsen’s LPM service in a letter to Commerce Committee Chairman Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, and co-Chairman Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii. “It is inconceivable that anyone could suggest that Nielsen’s local Nielsen/diary system … is more accurate than LPM technology. In an era when tens of millions of households have access to dozens or hundreds of channels, and when the remote control permits constant grazing, a paper diary system that relies on consumer memory and manual completion of forms is simply obsolete,” wrote Comcast Spotlight President Charles Thurston.

Michael Sherman is general manager of KTSF-TV, a locally owned Asian-language broadcaster in San Francisco. He said he has not changed his prime-time lineup in the past year, but his ratings are up about 150 percent year to year, according to the LPMs in San Francisco. “Am I totally happy [with Nielsen]? No,” he said, but, “I find Nielsen really proactively working with us in trying to understand what’s going on in these markets.”

After some senators balked at hearing from two panels, the list of witnesses was trimmed to one panel that does not include a representative of cable TV, which tends to see improved ratings with LPM technology.

Among those scheduled to testify:

  • Nielsen President and CEO Susan Whiting, who is expected to face tough questioning.

  • Ceril Shagrin, executive VP of research for Univision, which sued Nielsen last year in a failed attempt to slow the LPM rollout but later settled and signed a new contract for Nielsen services, including LPMs.

  • Tribune Broadcasting President Pat Mullen, who has spearheaded a demand for accreditation by the MRC of any new Nielsen services before data can be sold and used.

  • MindShare Worldwide Local Broadcast President Kathy Crawford, who is reluctant to see the government involved.

  • Gale Metzger, a former Nielsen employee and former SRI CEO who headed a failed attempt to build a rival to Nielsen in the 1990s.