By Staff -- Broadcasting & Cable, 7/24/2005 8:00:00 PM
Nielsen certainly has its share of problems. It is trying to keep up with the moving target of TV as the delivery system morphs to computers, cellphones and TiVos. Its ratings system is being overtaken by technology, and while its local people meter (LPM) is an improvement over the old meter/diary system, it is obviously still a work in progress.
Despite its woes, neither Nielsen nor the industry needs Washington stepping in to regulate TV ratings, as it is now threatening to do—and with the complicity of the National Association of Broadcasters, no less, which has endorsed a bill that would give the federal government say-so over how ratings and shares are counted. That's the same NAB, we note, that is allergic to regulation unless there is political or economic advantage to its members in supporting it.
Meters have been around for almost two decades in Nielsen's national sample, but they began running into opposition in 2002, when the ratings giant began its introduction of LPMs. Those are the ratings on which stations live or die.
Nielsen could have handled the transition far better. But because it is a near monopoly in the audience-measurement business, it was slow to respond to legitimate concerns.
As for the technology, the jury is still out. For starters, there are reports that many viewers can't figure out how to use LPMs. And even more fundamental, LPM numbers often show many more viewers watching cable than the old system did—so the numbers are radically different. Broadcasters, particularly Fox and Tribune Co., have campaigned against the system, arguing that Nielsen's not counting right.
But there is no justification for inviting Washington to start mandating some broadcasting version of fairness and balance in the ratings system. Yet bills introduced in both the House and Senate would make it law that any ratings service that wanted to do business in the U.S. should be approved by the Media Ratings Council first. Not only that, but any change to existing ratings would also have to pass muster with the MRC.
At a time when advertisers and programmers need a nimble and responsive system to track our mobile-media society, getting the government involved in this internal business dispute is folly. In fact, getting the government involved, even if technology were stagnant, would be folly. Capitol Hill has no reason to be a referee in the television-ratings business.
Our opposition to government intervention does not mean it should be business as usual at Nielsen either, a reality we hope the ratings monolith is at least wise enough to recognize. Its move to pay for audience audits of all future LPM markets and submit them to the established MRC are steps in the right direction, as are its efforts to improve the meter's fault rates.
If those measures aren't enough, though, more stations should vote with their feet and their pocketbooks. In fact, several dozen already have dropped Nielsen.
We think the marketplace can solve this problem. The ratings company should get better or a new service should emerge to scoop up the hundreds of millions of dollars that a reliable audience-measurement company could generate.
Indeed, networks or ad agencies could fund their own ratings system, which would get Nielsen's attention in a heartbeat. But inviting those trustworthy efficiency experts in Washington to fix television's ratings problems is an absurd solution.
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