If the senators who called Thursday's hearing on Nielsen Media Research's "Local People Meters" are any gauge, don't look for the government to start regulating TV ratings.
But the other side of that message was that the industry needs to stop fighting and start working together to fix whatever problem there is.
The drumbeat from Nielsen critics at the hearing, principally Fox and Univision, was that the company was an unregulated monopoly that needed some immediate and serious government oversight. The Senators ultimately did not appear to agree. Though they did agree that there was a compelling government interest in accurate ratings, they pushed for an industry solution.
"I don't think this will require legislation," said Committee Chairman and former broadcasters Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) of the questions surrounding the accuracy of the new meters in tracking minority broadcast viewing. Though he did say it would take more cooperation and less of the acrimony that at one point in the hearing had him warning against fisticuffs.
Burns suggested Congress needed to be kept more in the loop, perhaps through ongoing dialog with the Media Rating Council, the industry group that accredits ratings services. He kept the record of the hearing open for two weeks so that other legislators could ask questions of the panelists. He also seemed to suggest there could be further hearings.
Senator Barbara Boxer (D.Calif), was similarly wary of government intervention, saying she was "reluctant to throw big brother into the mix." She pointed out that it was tough to separate the issues of ratings accuracy from the agendas of politics and the billions in advertising dollars at stake.
The hearing did not come to fisticuffs, but it was filled with heated crosstalk, particularly from Fox Stations President Tom Herwitz and Univision station President Tom Arnost directed at Nielsen.
Arnost called Nielsen Unregulated foreign-owned monopoly whose "woefully inaccurate" sample size drives the news, entertainment and public service choices of the nation.
Herwitz said that he would not drive his car if he thought the breaks might be bad, but that Nielsen knows the brakes are bad, but is trying to fix them while driving at the same time.
for her part, Nielsen President Susan Whiting slammed News Corp. for bankrolling a campaign of "disinformation and half-truths" that could itself have the result of skewing the minority viewing sample. Whiting
stood by the meters, saying they were an improvement over diaries, that the company was and would continue to improve them, and vowing that the roll-out would continue.
Some other highlights:
Whiting seemed blindsided by a letter from NAACP Chairman Julian Bond to Boxer expressing NAACP concerns with the meter rollout. Whiting said she has had many productive conversations with NAACP President Kweisi Mfume, who Nielsen has publicly cited as an enthusiastic supporter.
Nielsen has agreed to extend the parallel release of new LPM numbers and diary results for the major markets it is rolling out, including two extra months for San Francisco, which is slated for a September LPM launch.
California Democrat Rep. Maxine Waters weighed in on the side of Nielsen, saying Congress should not interfere with the roll-out and suggesting that the issue may be about the networks that "have been in the number one column and stand to be moved out of that column with more and better information.
Texas Democratic Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee weighed in on the side of meter critics, saying Nielsen needs "a big fix." Saying Nielsen was "the only kid on the block," Jackson Lee wondered whether, given Nielsen's importance, "it is reasonable to ask whether it is in the public's interest that "there is no government agency oversight."
The two research witnesses, George Ivie of the Media Rating Council, and
Bob Barocci of the Advertising Research Foundation, essentially argued for trying to remove the politics and money out of the debate and focus on the only real issues, which were to determine how accurate the sampling is--almost everyone agreed the technology is Superior to diaries--and how best to improve it.
Boxer agreed, saying she was looking for the person with the smallest ax to grind, a title she awarded to Barocci.