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Nielsen accepts voluntary code

Witnesses disagreed over effect the act will have

WASHINGTON — Nielsen topper Susan Whiting told a Senate hearing that the ratings giant would agree to abide by a new voluntary Media Rating Council audit and accreditation code in lieu of the regulation of ratings as a bill proposes.

However, witnesses strongly disagreed over what effect the code would have.

Whiting said the Fairness, Accuracy, Inclusivity & Responsiveness in Ratings Act of 2005 would slow innovations in ratings systems “to a crawl” because of the delays inherent in regulation. The bill gives “no idea of how long it’ll take to get a new or an improved service accredited,” she said. As a result, competition would suffer, she added.

But Gale Metzger, former prexy of Statistical Research, testified: “First, it would be difficult to have less competition or less innovation than we have now. Second, it is my impression that Nielsen has become a reluctant participant and not permitted select components of their services — new and old — to be examined by the MRC process.”

FAIR Ratings Act, introduced by Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.), is rooted in controversy over accuracy of Nielsen’s Local People Meters, which some have claimed undercount minority auds. Bill would change MRC accreditation of ratings services and systems, currently voluntary, to mandatory. MRC, a nonprofit industry association, was formed in 1964 at the urging of Congress.

Metzger and Pat Mullen, CEO of Tribune Broadcasting, who also testified in support of FAIR, told the hearing Nielsen was only now willing to abide by a voluntary code that MRC is still drafting because of the threat of legislation.

“If Nielsen had followed (established) MRC processes voluntarily, we wouldn’t be here today,” Mullen said. “We’ve been trying to deal with a monopoly that’s acting like one.”

Mullen said broadcasters were upset with Nielsen for having commercially rolled out LPMs in several markets without MRC accreditation of the new service. George Ivie, MRC’s exec director, expressed similar dissatisfaction at the hearing.

However, Ivie professed to be neutral on the bill, saying MRC could work well with Nielsen if it does abide by the voluntary audit and accreditation code, which he expects to be ready by October. Whiting repeatedly said Nielsen is “committed” to working voluntarily with MRC.

Advertiser pressure

Whiting said Nielsen felt pressured by advertisers to get LPMs up and running as quickly as possible — a claim the ad industry backed.

“We almost screamed” to get LPMs into certain markets, said Kathy Crawford, prexy of local broadcast, Mindshare Worldwide. “Advertisers have been waiting 15 years for a service to tell them the next day how well their spot did the night before.”

LPMs have lower fault rates and are thus more accurate than their predecessors, written diaries. Crawford suggested certain broadcasters were unhappy with LPMs only because they show generally lower ratings.

“Advertisers are paying the ultimate price here,” she added.

Mullen disputed those points, citing several examples of technological problems with LPMs. “Ratings determine our fees” charged to advertisers, Mullen said. “If the rating isn’t accurate, we’re paying the ultimate price.”

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