Ratings Watchdog Wants Bigger Teeth


Media Ratings Council members -- including the big broadcast networks, cable channel, and ad agencies -- have written Congress asking for a vote of confidence for the MRC, a renewed pledge from Nielsen Media Research to abide by its audits and a ratings code of conduct.

Nielsen already agreed to abide by MRC decisions, but the pledge was made back in 1963, when the MRC's predecessor was formed in the wake of a ratings scandal.

MRC members think it's time for Nielsen to put its hand on the ratings book and renew that pledge. "Right now, Nielsen has the marketplace dominance that, if they chose to, they could walk away," says MRC Executive Director George Ivie.

Ivie says the requests were not new, but that they have been coming from him in ongoing dialog with Washington. What he said was unprecedented was the 70 or so member companies, including ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, Cox, Time Warner, and the veritable host of others--who put their names to the new letter.

MRC is the client-backed auditor for various media ratings services. The formal request to add more bite to the bark of that watchdog was sent to Senator Conrad Burns (R-Mont.), who has been holding an ongoing dialog with the council since holding hearings on Nielsen last July, where he suggested regulation was not necessary.

MRC's four requests:

1. A reaffirmation from Congress of the MRC's role in auditing ratings.

2. More communication with government when MRC is having issues. "so there are no surprises," says Ivey.

3. A renewed pledge from Nielsen to the Federal Trade Commission that it will abide by MRC audits.

4. Establishing a voluntary code of conduct, initially with Nielsen, but expanded to include the other ratings services MRC audits--Arbitron, Scarborough, MRI.

Nielsen has come under fire for the Local People Meters (LPMs) it is rolling out in major markets. Critics say sampling errors for the new meters have led to undercounting of minority viewers. Nielsen concedes some sampling problems, and has been trying to rectify them, according to the company. But it also argues that the meters are better recording the flight of minorities to other media.

Last week, citing some continuing problems, the MRC voted to extend its conditional approval of LPMs in the nation's top three markets, New York, L.A. and Chicago, which is the status quo, rather than the full accreditation Nielsen ultimately seeks.