A mix of House Republicans and Democrats (17 in all) has asked Federal Trade Commission chairman Deborah Majoras to look into the FTC's role, if any, in helping Congress to investigate/oversee TV ratings and Nielsen Media Research's new "Local People Meters."
In a letter to Majoras dated March 4, they expressed their concern over Nielsen's roll-out of its new meter technology "without the accreditation of the Media Ratings Council," saying that they hoped the industry, community groups, broadcasters, advertisers and Nielsen could work out the issue themselves, but adding "the federal government may also need to be an active participant to ensure that a solution is found."
The issue is alleged undercounting of minorities by the meters and the effect such undercounting would have on stations and the production of minority programming.
Senator Conrad Burns (R- Mont.) who held hearings on the meters last year, also asked Majoras last fall whether the FTC has jurisdiction over insuring that "the television ratings industry is run fairly and in the best interest of the public." Burns' office has not yet gotten an answer. Spokeswoman Jennifer O'Shea said the FTC had aksed for extra time at the beginning of February, "and we granted their request."
Nielsen responded to the March 4 letter in a statement, saying that government regulation is at best unnecessary and at worst could damage the system's accuracy by "slowing down innovation at a time of rapid change in entertainment viewing habits." Nielsen has just announced a $2.5 million R&D investment in new ratings technologies, including the people meter, that will include major input from clients.
In addition, said Nielsen, "[government regulation] would give large, politically connected media companies a chance to influence the ratings process to their advantage."
That is a veiled reference to Fox, which has backed a group, the Don't Count Us Out Coalition, that argues Nielsen's new meters unfairly undercount minority viewing. Fox stations in New York suffered under the new system. Nielsen argues instead that the meters are better counting minorities' flight to other media, including cable, but also concedes fault rates for the meters (operators errors) need to be reduced.
The meters have been rolled out in five of the top 10 markets already--Boston, New York, Chicago, San Francisco and L.A.) but are fully accredited by the Media Ratings Council only in Boston. Philadelphia and D.C.markets will be added in June, Dallas and Detroit in November, and Atlanta in May '06.
The letter, from a mix of Republicans and Democrats including Republican Mary Bono (Calif.) and Democrat Al Wynn (Md.), came the same week that the Don't Count Us Out Coalition announced it had hired an executive director and rehired a former consultant, both with strong Hill ties, to push their case for government oversight of Nielsen.
The Media Ratings Council was created in the 1960's as a client-backed watchdog for various services following a ratings scandal, but it has been criticized for carrying too small a stick because withholding accreditation or granting it conditionally does not prevent Nielsen from using the meters.