Gov't won't step into People Meter battle

WASHINGTON — Nielsen is breathing a small sigh of relief.

At the end of a contentious Capitol Hill hearing exploring the bitter feud over Nielsen’s People Meter ratings system and claims that it undercounts minorities, Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) said he “doubted” that Congress would step into the TV industry battle with legislation.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) added that she was reluctant to have “big brother” get involved.

Instead, the bipartisan pair vowed to continue to monitor the dispute and keep the lines of communication open between the two sides.

“Clearly, it is the view of the committee that the private sector should work out any issues related to TV ratings, and we are fully committed to working within the media industry to resolve any outstanding issues, just as we have in the past,” Nielsen declared in a statement released after the hearing.

But Nielsen did not walk away unscathed.

Company prexy Susan Whiting endured a serious grilling from Burns and Boxer, as well as heated opposition from media company execs, including News Corp. and Univision chieftains who called for more government oversight and standards for Nielsen’s ratings collection.

The hearing itself provided little, if any, resolution to the ongoing debate about whether the new rating system undercounts minorities and what steps Nielsen could and would be willing to take in response to the criticism.

It also shed little light on the reasons behind the marked difference in minority viewing ratings between Nielsen’s old meter/diary system and the local People Meters in new markets the company is measuring.

With the numbers changing so dramatically, Boxer said at the end of her questioning, “That would lead someone to believe that there was fault somewhere.”

For more than two hours, Whiting clashed with reps from Fox, Univision and the Media Rating Council, an org that failed to accredit Nielsen’s People Meter rollout in New York after a preliminary investigation of some critics’ charges.

Dead reckoning

At one point in the testimony, Fox TV stations chief Tom Herwitz claimed that one ratings measurement of African-American TV viewing depended on one African-American man who was dead.

For her part, Whiting discussed the incredibly complex task of collecting TV ratings and maintaining accurate minority data in cities where families of mixed race are increasingly common. But Whiting brushed aside all claims that the new People Meters were misrepresenting minority ratings.

“We don’t believe there is an undercount,” she stated flatly.

Advertising Research Foundation prexy Robert Barocci provided the only relatively neutral analysis.

Barocci argued that the new People Meter ratings system measures TV viewing auds more accurately than the current diary system and does a better job of depicting the growing cable auds — a fact he said is fueling the nets’ bitter resentment of the new system.

“The question is not whether the new system is perfect, but whether it is better than before,” he said.

Barocci asserted that it is the major networks’ fear of a loss of ad revenue to cable stations that has motivated the months of rancor over the new system.

“This will increase the value of the inventory of cable stations and decrease the inventory of the traditional networks — NBC, Fox, ABC, CBS, for instance,” he said.

Although the hearing forged little common ground, Fox lobbyist Michael Reagan said afterward that he was still pleased that Burns and Boxer called Nielsen in to testify.

“This is really the only oversight Nielsen has had,” Reagan remarked.

In its post-hearing statement, Nielsen fired back, calling Fox’s desire for government intervention “a strange and self-serving plea from an organization that constantly uses its media outlets to rail against regulation.”

A related side note: The only TV station covering the hearing was local station Fox 5 in Washington, D.C.

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more