Politicos, Lobbyists Oppose Nielsen's Ratings Changes

31 March 2004

Be afraid, Nielsen Media Research.

Very, very afraid.

For none other than the steely Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton (Democrat, New York), whom many see as the next but one president of the United States, has lent her voice to the growing chorus of protest at the researcher's proposed changes to its TV ratings methodology.

Also manning the barricade alongside Senator Clinton is the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The changes, accuse the protesters, will significantly underestimate the number of African-American and Hispanic TV viewers.

Not so, protests Nielsen, insisting its proposed rollout of viewing measurement technology will actually increase the number of 'colored' households surveyed. The switch involves local adoption of the so-called people meters Nielsen has used since 1986 to gather national ratings data.

Currently, Nielsen's local market data is gathered manually via a paper diary system; also in use are set-top boxes, ancient technology compared with people meters.

But in a letter to Nielsen president/ceo Susan D Whiting, Senator Clinton airs her concern that the new system is "undercounting minority viewers." Her suspicions center on a recent test of the local people meters in New York state, during which "virtually all top-rated shows among African-American adults witnessed significant declines in viewership, in some cases by more than 60%."

Continued the Clinton missive: "Similarly, large declines were seen in the ratings for top Spanish-language networks. Without a thorough investigation into these statistical aberrations, I think it is fair to say that Nielsen would be remiss in pushing forward with its rollout plan."

A like view was expressed in another letter, penned by Kweisi Mfume, president of the NAACP. It voiced similar fears, alleging that Nielsen's plans could imperil the "future of programming aimed specifically at African-American and Latino audiences."

But Clinton and Mfume are only the latest voices to join the chorus of complaints from prominent lawmakers on both sides of the political divide.

Another ally has emerged, this time from an unexpected quarter -- Lachlan Murdoch, chairman of Fox Television Stations Group and member of a dynasty whose sole concerns over color have hitherto been the authenticity of the green on the back of a dollar bill.

Earlier this month Murdoch junior issued a statement warning that local people meters "could undercount viewership by as much as 25%, especially when quantifying viewership among young and minority viewers."

Nielsen has already delayed introduction of the people meters in the Chicago and Los Angeles markets until after Memorial Day (traditionally the last Monday in May), allowing the company to adjust the samples in those cities.

Data sourced from: New York Times; additional content by WARC staff