Attack Mode

People-meter ratings come under minority fire

If Nielsen's new local people meter (LPM) is to be believed, New York City viewers are leaving shows long popular with African-American and Latinos in droves. A big ratings dip in the No. 1 market raises fears that favorite series could be canceled. Fox claims the LPM reports only three-quarters or less of actual minority viewership. And low ratings translate into axed programs.

That's the message Fox has sent to prominent New York politicians and an array of highly influential public-interest groups, including the NAACP, The Hispanic Federation, National Minority Business Council, and the National Hispanic Media Coalition. Fox's lobbying effort culminated in an unprecedented PR blitz along the New York-Washington corridor, aimed directly at Nielsen.

The public-interest groups, with the support of Sen. Hilary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.), who heads the Senate's communications subcommittee; and NAACP President Kweisi Mfume, demanded that Nielsen delay the April 8 launch of its New York people meter until it explains why minority viewing is down. For some programs, the decline is a staggering 60% or more vs. the current diary system.

For example: UPN prime time show One on One was down 62%, while ABC's My Wife &
was off 27%. The Parkers, another UPN show, dropped 56% with the LPM. All are among the top-10 rated shows among African-Americans in New York.

Fox, which owns the WNYW/WWOR duopoly, was the only broadcaster pressing hard for a delay. Its stations (affiliated with Fox and UPN) have younger and more urban viewers than the other stations in the market.

The other stations have issues but want to move forward. Hispanic stations in the market lost audience in February. Telemundo outlet WNJU lost half its adults 18-49 share at 9-10 p.m. while Univision dropped from a 5 share to a 4 share in the same period. No comment from either one although Univision executives were said to be "displeased" with the LPM methodology. But it wasn't asking for a delay.

Advocacy groups, however, staged a protest rally in front of Nielsen's New York headquarters. They also unveiled a new coalition, Don't Count Us Out, which bought full-page newspaper ads in various publications, including the New York Post, New York Daily News, Newsday, Hispanic daily El Diario, and African-American focused Amsterdam News. A source close to the coalition says Fox paid for the ads. A spokesman admits that Fox made a sizeable contribution but insists that other groups would contribute, although he refuses to identify them.

"It's your remote," the ads say. "Don't let Nielsen have control." The ad charges that Nielsen's New York people meter undercounts minority viewing marketwide by as much as 25%.

That's the number Fox Television Stations Chairman Lachlan Murdoch used in a statement citing concern that Nielsen's LPM service wasn't ready for prime time. He also charged that "growing evidence" shows that Nielsen's "methodology suffered certain flaws—particularly in large, ethnically diverse urban areas." His recommendation? "Conducting a review prior to rollout." And an independent auditor should conduct the review, he added.

The ads refer to a Web site, which actually posted February sweeps data comparing New York people-meter ratings for shows popular among minorities versus how the shows performed in the viewer diaries. Public release of the people-meter data violates the contracts that stations sign with Nielsen. No one admits to releasing it, but most of the finger-pointing was aimed at Fox.

While it makes sense that Fox is unhappy with the new ratings service, other stations in the market are annoyed at Fox's orchestrated delay tactics. "It's really a new low," says one researcher in the market. And the damage could be substantial. "Ironically, what may happen is that minority groups could become so alienated with the system, they just refuse to cooperate with Nielsen altogether. Then where will it be?"

"I'm no fan of Nielsen," says a top TV researcher. (All New York stations have agreed not to talk about the LPM publicly until after the launch of the new service.) The executive says Nielsen was "100% right to delay the launch of the people meter in Los Angeles [to July] and Chicago [August]," which it did two weeks ago. "Both those markets have major sample issues."

But New York is different, argues the executive. "To be fair, [Nielsen's new ratings] seem to be OK." The New York ratings sample is where it should be in terms of representing minorities—and every other segment of the New York viewing universe, he says. In fact, several station researchers, as well as Nielsen itself, insist that African-Americans and Latinos are actually over-represented
in the new New York LPM ratings panel—by 4 percentage points for African-Americans and 3% for Latinos. "They're in the sample. It's not like they aren't there," a New York station executive says of minority viewers.

David Poltrack, CBS executive vice president, research and planning, agrees. Although he says Nielsen could delay its New York launch until after the May sweeps to get more comparative data, he can live with the April 8 conversion. Hispanics are adequately represented in the panel, he believes, although the methodology can be improved. Some of those low UPN numbers raise questions, but shows that have high minority appeal, such as Oprah, Montel Williams, and Judge Judy, actually gained in the people meter.

Still, the minority coalition wasn't buying it.

Alex Nogales, president of the National Hispanic Media Coalition, says his beef isn't with the people meter per se but with the methodology Nielsen uses to count Latinos. His group did a study last year that showed drastic under-reporting of Latino viewing. The George Lopez Show, for example, attracted 1.2 million Latinos, according to Nielsen, but the coalition study found 2 million Latinos tuning in.

However, that was a national rating, not a New York rating. Nogales reasons that, if Nielsen is undercounting nationally, it's undercounting locally, too: "If the way they calculate the population base is off, then it's off. It's time to go back to the drawing board."

Black and Blue
Ratings for shows popular with African-Americans 18-49, New York, February 2004
Using diary system Using LPM Difference
Source: based on Nielsen Media Research data
All of Us4.12.0-51%
Half & Half4.42.2-50%
The Parkers5.02.2-56%
One on One3.41.3-62%
The Practice5.92.9-51%
My Wife & Kids4.93.6-27%