Nielsen People Meter: Nielsen debate shifts focus as groups, Congress step in

Last month, Congress entered the debate over Nielsen's local people meters for television. Now an array of groups is chiming in about the need for oversight.

Last month, Congress entered the debate over Nielsen's local people meters for television. Now an array of groups is chiming in about the need for oversight.

Nielsen Media Research has been an important factor in the TV broadcasting industry for decades. Its ratings information decides whether programs are renewed or canceled. But more important, Nielsen ratings help establish advertising rates for certain time slots and stations.

For years, Nielsen relied on paper diaries in local markets to track families' viewing habits. Last year, the media research giant announced plans to introduce local people meters, an electronic system, in the 10 largest TV markets in the country. News Corp., owner of Fox Broadcasting, was one of the more vocal opponents of the system, charging that it undercounted minorities. News Corp. owns Fox stations and several UPN affiliates, both of which have programs popular with minorities. Such undercounting could eventually translate into less advertising revenue.

Initially, the disagreement played out as a battle between two media giants. For the first time in its history, Nielsen enlisted the help of a lobbying firm, DC-based Wexler & Walker Public Policy Associates. News Corp. worked with Glover Park Group, which helped establish Don't Count Us Out, a grassroots organization opposed to the people meters. The Wall Street Journal also reports that News Corp. is working with Democratic lobbyists Chris Lehane and Minyon Moore.

Although the issue was brought up in DC more than a year ago, it was not until last month, when Sen. Conrad Burns (R-MT) introduced the Fairness, Accuracy, Inclusivity, and Responsiveness in Ratings (FAIR Ratings) Act, that it had been given full attention. Now a host of characters has joined the fight, shifting focus from the two media giants - and perhaps changing the argument, as well.

Government regulation

FAIR, which News Corp. supports, would require Nielsen, or any other TV ratings service, to be accredited by the Media Rating Council (MRC), a non-profit group made up of broadcasters, advertisers, and other industry members. Currently, Nielsen seeks accreditation voluntarily, and MRC doesn't have the power to require changes.

"Nielsen needs some kind of effective oversight because it is the only game in town," Burns said at a hearing on the bill last month. "Companies [that] need TV ratings data do not have anywhere else to go today - even if they have serious concerns about Nielsen's numbers or methods. MRC oversight, with meaningful enforcement power, would remedy this situation in the best possible way because MRC is made up of Nielsen's customers."

With Congress due back from recess in a few weeks, both sides are still working hard to get their messages out. And the legislative battle is something that Nielsen hopes will help shift the debate from questions of race to government and business.

"The bill is going to be very helpful in galvanizing people against the idea of government regulation," says Jack Loftus, VP of communications for Nielsen.

He adds that focusing on the increasing power that the bill would give government could help garner opposition because it is the race issue that has made some companies wary of getting involved.

Indeed, several companies are opposed to the bill, including the Association of National Advertisers (ANA), the American Advertising Federation, and Eastern Group Publications.

Daniel Jaffe, EVP of ANA's DC office, says self-regulation is working, and legislation is not needed. Jaffe says ANA has not enlisted the help of any outside PR counsel or lobbyist firms on the issue yet, but would consider it should the bill go forward after Congress returns from recess. Instead, most of ANA's communication on the issue has been through traditional press releases, a letter to Burns, and Jaffe's blog. "We believe that PR is a helpful approach to these kinds of issues," he says.

One of ANA's main issues with the proposed legislation is that it could have an adverse effect on marketing new products.

"The proposed bill would slow the introduction of new technology and create barriers to entry for new ratings services and for products within those services," Jaffe writes in his blog. "If a product was prevented from becoming commercialized by a protracted, government-mandated accreditation process, we believe that development/implementation of many new products would be severely stifled."

However, Cynthia Rotunno, executive director of the Don't Count Us Out Coalition, says in a statement to PRWeek that ratings reform is the real issue and is needed to make TV ratings accurate. "Nielsen's attempts to change the conversation on this issue are not going to work this time," she says.

Several other media companies, including Gannett, Tribune Co., and Allbritton Communications, are supporting the bill. Gannett's VP of corporate communications, Tara Connell, says the media company has been opposed to local people meters from the beginning. In fact, Gannett was part of a delegation that asked Burns to get involved with the issue, she adds.

The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), while not engaging in heavy PR or lobbying for the FAIR Ratings Act, nonetheless has shown its support. In a letter to Burns, NAB president Edward Fritts acknowledges that MRC should be involved in maintaining a fair and reliable media-measurement system. "While further modification of the bill may be necessary, we stand ready to work with you and your staff to ensure a transparent, effective, and fair media ratings accreditation process," he writes.

Shaun Sheehan, VP of Washington affairs for Tribune, says the support of other broadcasters should help to diminish any appearance that this is solely a News Corp. versus Nielsen issue, something that has previously been a challenge. "On the surface, it appears to be a dispute between two sets of well-heeled players," he says. "The question becomes, where is the public policy argument in all of this?"

Sheehan says part of Tribune's message has been that broadcasting can remain free only as long as there is advertising to support it. "If there are enormous flaws in the way that audience is being reported, then the very fabric of broadcasting becomes threatened," he says.

He also dismisses the argument about government regulation because he says Nielsen has no competition in the marketplace. "We're dealing with a monopoly," he says. "And when you deal with a monopoly that refuses to correct its errors, which are demonstrable, you petition your government."

Voicing opposition

Dale Snape, GM of Wexler & Walker, says that the firm has been getting the word out to members of Congress that there is no need for government regulation. "There is an industry-wide mechanism for dealing with accuracy in the MRC," he says. "The voluntary code of conduct that the MRC has proposed is something we think is the right way of resolving issues that might be of concern"

Another important point, he says, is that the local people meters, while not perfect, are more accurate than older methods. "The notion that you would do anything to delay or inhibit the use of a better product over a not-as-good product seems counterintuitive," he says. "That is the message that we basically try to get to people."

Morris Reid, an MD at DC-based Westin Rinehart, says he has previously worked with parties on both sides of this issue, but is not actively involved at the moment. As an outsider, he says he is sympathetic to Nielsen, but adds that the company might have to change its philosophy about the bill and this legislative battle if it hopes to be successful.

"Nielsen's Achilles heal is that they want to be correct. They're not looking at this as a real battle," he says. "They have to get off this idealism that they have to be right. It's not about being right; it's about winning."

  • Additional reporting by Anita Chabria.

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