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Indies call for Nielsen probe

The Arbitron Co.’s exit from the TV ratings business has prompted the Assn. of Independent Television Stations to seek U.S. Dept. of Justice approval to gather data on prices charged by A.C. Nielsen Co., the sole remaining firm in the local market ratings biz.

In a statement, INTV prez James Hedlund called Arbitron’s departure from ratings gathering “a matter of enormous concern to independent stations. INTV hardly can close its eyes to thepossibility of monopoly pricing abuses by the sole remaining TV ratings service.”

INTV representatives declined comment, but it’s believed the Justice Dept. request was prompted by allegations that Nielsen has been jacking up prices in the two months since Arbitron announced it was ankling the business.

Nielsen spokesman Jack Loftus denied the claim, saying, “In situations where we had an offer on the table (to lure a TV station away from Arbitron prior to Arbitron’s Oct. 18 decision to abandon the business), that offer still stands.”

Still to be resolved is the price charged to TV stations under contract to Arbitron that now switch to Nielsen, per Loftus. He gave the example of two stations in the same market, one of which was paying $ 10 for Arbitron’s service and the other $ 15 for Nielsen. “The question then becomes: Is it fair to the Nielsen stations to only charge the new station $ 10,” said Loftus.

Loftus said Nielsen “knew we’d be under a whole lot of scrutiny” given Arbitron’s departure. “We will behave responsibly in the marketplace,” he said.

In a letter to Anne Bingaman, head of Justice’s antitrust division, INTV said the Nielsen price information “would be compiled to detect pricing trends which reveal price increases which might have resulted from the elimination of competition in the market, as well as possible discriminatory pricing.”

INTV said that publication of the Nielsen data “might encourage entry of a competing firm into the market” or could prompt individual stations to decide whether to file an antitrust lawsuit.

INTV general counsel Jim Popham said INTV “won’t share individual station data” on prices charged by Nielsen.

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