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Ratings Measure Losing Momentum

Aug 1, 2005  •  Post A Comment

The odds of getting federal legislation that gives the TV industry more leverage against Nielsen Media Research were 50-50 or less in the wake of a Senate hearing last week, according to media executives and lobbyists who have campaigned to force Nielsen to submit to a ratings authority.

Whatever the outcome, however, a hard-fought battle over ratings regulation is expected to be waged in Washington for months.

Following last week’s hearing before the Senate Commerce Committee, Senate staffers planned to tweak language in the FAIR Ratings Act-or Fairness, Accuracy, Inclusiveness and Responsiveness in Ratings-to address some potential stumbling blocks. The measure, introduced by committee member Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., aims to give the Media Rating Council, made up of TV and research industry professionals, power to enforce the research standards it sets.

Among the issues: whether the MRC would require an audit or accreditation before clearing the way for new Nielsen Local People Meter services to be deployed, and whether empowering the MRC, a four-decade-old industry watchdog agency, would create antitrust concerns.

On Capitol Hill, there are questions about whether a consensus can be reached. Some TV executives have been demanding that Nielsen agree not to launch any new services before they are accredited by the MRC. But the MRC has proposed a voluntary code of conduct that would require an audit, not the final step of accreditation, prior to launch.

Nielsen has agreed to audit-before-launch of services in the future but is dickering over other language in the detailed proposal, a situation some on the Hill see as “like writing its own rules again,” as one longtime Nielsen client put it.

George Ivie, executive director and CEO of the MRC, told Sen. Burns during the hearing that he hopes to have the voluntary code wrapped up by Oct. 15. However, Nielsen, which has a monopoly on TV ratings, questions whether a code that enforces standards and procedures could pass antitrust muster with the Justice Department or the Federal Trade Commission, one of which would have to vet any such agreement.

Nielsen also has argued that if accreditation is a requirement for charging for its data, it will have to shut down some of its services.

The language of the FAIR Ratings Act will make clear it will not shut down existing services and will add an antitrust exemption for the MRC, according to a source close to Sen. Burns. (Sen. Burns owned TV and radio stations before being elected to the Senate the first time in 1988.)

Some of the most aggressive Nielsen client-critics, who also are voting members of the MRC, are not ready to settle for the less-stringent audit requirement.

“George Ivie is really between a rock and a hard place,” one lobbyist said. “One of the big things accomplished is to show this is just the beginning, not the end of the debate.”

Some of Nielsen’s more moderate clients think the debate has become increasingly politicized since Nielsen began its conversion to Local People Meter services last year. Of the seven markets in which the LPMs are operating, only two-Boston and San Francisco-are accredited.

Mr. Ivie did not return calls seeking comment.

“My goal is to see the MRC come out of all this more empowered,” said David Poltrack, executive VP of research and planning for CBS.

“The hearing provided a forum for the industry to take a first look at the FAIR Ratings Act. Based on [Wednesday’s] testimony, Sen. Burns will make changes in the legislation to ensure it does no harm and is fair to all affected parties. He will continue to monitor the developments in the industry, including progress toward acceptance of the MRC’s voluntary code of conduct,” a spokesman for Sen. Burns said.

So the lobbyists will continue to work the Hill throughout Congress’s August break and into the fall. Lobbyists for the broadcasters who complain that high fault rates in LPM markets are costing them viewers-and thus advertising revenue-will work to frame the debate as rooted in public policy and not as a business dispute between individual and powerful parties, one of them a monopoly.

“It’s like everything else: You petition your government every way you know how,” said Shaun Sheehan, Tribune VP and Washington lobbyist. But other broadcast executives note that while all the jawboning has focused intense pressure on Nielsen, “The broad cross-section probably doesn’t think there is a strong federal role here,” said one broadcaster.

“If their ratings were going through the roof, we wouldn’t even be having these hearings,” said Nielsen spokesman Jack Loftus.