FTC Won't Monitor Ratings

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The Federal Trade Commission has told Congress that it is not in the business of overseeing the accuracy of media ratings, saying self-regulation appeared to be working.

The FTC also concluded that Nielsen did not misrepresent its Local People Meters or fail to disclose "material facts" about the system. Beyond that, it said Nielsen was acknowledging problems and working to correct them.

Nielsen praised the decision and said it should end the discussion of whether there should be government oversight of the ratings system.

That word came in a letter from FTC Chairman Deborah Platt Majoras to Maryland Congressman Albert Wynn (D-Md.), one of a number of legislators, including former broadcaster Senator Conrad Burns (R-Mont.), who wrote the agency to ask what authority it had over Nielsen.

The queries came in response to criticism that the new meters, which Nielsen is rolling out in major markets, undercount minorities. Nielsen has conceded some sampling problems, which it is working to correct in cooperation with the self-regulatory ratings oversight body, the Media Ratings Council, but also says the meters are more accurately tracking the flight of viewers to cable and elsewhere.

That flight/undercount (depending on your view) has affected the ratings of some broadcasters, including Fox in number one market New York. Fox has backed a group, the Don't Count Us Out Coalition, to push Washington to step in. Burns even held hearings on the meters last year.

Majoras said it was not up to the commission to judge "whether the LPM or alternate systems now in use--which have shortcomings as well--come closer to the actual truth of audience viewing behavior," but said that "absent unfair or deceptive practices," it is not the FTC's business to impose standards of accuracy on media ratings measurement.

She also said that Nielsen's media company clients are "highly sophisticated and capable of evaluating the information Nielsen provides."

"We appreciate the time and resources that the Federal Trade Commission and its staff have invested in this comprehensive review of Nielsen’s Local People Meters," said Nielsen in a statement. "The Commission determined clearly that the marketplace is working and there is no need for government regulation of TV ratings." 

"A fair and accurate ratings system is a vital public interest that is not being served by the Nielsen monopoly," said Don't Count Us Out coalition Executive Director Cynthia Rotunno. "We are disappointed, but not surprised by the FTC's response."

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