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Delay Tactics

Stealth campaign stalls Nielsen local people meters 4/11/2004 08:00:00 PM Eastern

A massive campaign to derail the local people meter (LPM) in New York has won. Nielsen decided to delay the introduction of the LPM there by two months, until June. The company insists the delay is not due to undercounting of minorities in the new system. Nielsen and most of its clients maintain that the system is accurate and ready to roll out.

However, Nielsen says a direct-mail campaign under way in New York urges viewers not to cooperate with the ratings service. Such tactics, the firm says, have hurt its ability to recruit minority households in the New York market. In the past two weeks, several minority households have rejected the company's bid to make them part of the ratings sample, according to Nielsen Vice President Jack Loftus.

Talking about the decision to delay New York, Nielsen Media Research President Susan Whiting says the company's misstep in the Big Apple was strictly a marketing blunder. The delay, she stresses, is to execute a "detailed communications initiative," not to correct any methodological flaws in the service.

For some TV researchers, the anti-Nielsen campaign is their worst nightmare. If minority households refuse to become Nielsen families, they fear that ratings from the new LPM won't be credible. Others, led by Fox TV network, argue that the LPM service undercounts minorities and ought to be reconfigured.

But some competing broadcasters are questioning whether Fox went too far. Loftus says his company had not obtained a copy of the direct-mail postcard and did not know who was behind the effort. "Nielsen is taking appropriate action," he says, to determine the source.

"If that's true and if any of the stations in the market were involved, that would merit an FCC investigation," says one irate research executive. "And maybe even the Justice Department. That's like jury-tampering. It completely throws the New York sample into disarray"

So far, there is no smoking gun linking the campaign to Fox. Network spokesman Gary Ginsburg didn't return a call for comment. The Glover Park Group, a consulting firm that works with Fox on its Nielsen campaign, also declined comment. Whether the sample is now tainted is an open question, although Whiting insists that the New York panel accurately reflects the audience composition of the market. She may be in the minority.

Which is why Nielsen agreed to accept input from a task force on minority-viewing ratings issues that will be formed by Rep. Charles Rangel (D-New York). Asked if he thought Nielsen's LPM undercounts minorities, Rangel replies, "I have no clue. There's overcounting, and there's undercounting. That's why we're forming this task force."

But Whiting says Nielsen sees the task force as advisory and not designed to explore whether the LPM accurately counts minority viewing. She says the mission of the task force would be to provide suggestions on recruitment of minority households, methodology issues, and the like.

Fox is the strongest opponent of people meters in New York, largely because ratings for its two owned stations are down double digits under the new system, far more than most stations in the market. The reason, argues Fox, is that UPN affiliate WWOR and Fox flagship WNYW skew more urban and ethnic than its competitors.

Station reaction to the Nielsen delay is mixed. David Poltrack, CBS executive vice president of research and planning, is pleased by the action, because it gives stations another two months to compare discrepancies between the new and outgoing systems. WNBC and co-owned Telemundo station WNJU report they are "disappointed in the delay and its disruption to business for everyone in the industry."

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