Conduct Done Becoming: MRC Cracks Ratings Code, Awaits Fed Approval, Nielsen's Blessing

After more than a year of public and backroom debate, the major media ratings services have agreed to a voluntary code of conduct that would serve as the new self-regulatory standard for the currencies used for buying media time and space. All of the major media ratings services accredited in the U.S. and Puerto Rico by the Media Rating Council, have agreed in principle to the code, and are awaiting approval from federal regulators before signing it.

"Nielsen has agreed to the MRC's voluntary code of conduct, along with the other major ratings providers," George Ivie, executive director and CEO of the ratings industry's self-regulatory watchdog confirmed for MediaDailyNews, though he said all of the companies are waiting for government approval ensuring that it does not violate any antitrust issues before signing the agreement.

The push for a new, explicit code was initiated in January 2005, after Nielsen began deploying new people meter-based ratings services as the commercial currency in the major local markets before agreeing to have those services vetted, audited and accredited by the MRC. That was followed by a public debate including a Congressional hearing at which Nielsen CEO Susan Whiting said the ratings service ultimately would agree to a code. In the year that followed, Whiting issued periodic updates to clients saying the ratings service was close to agreeing to the code but was continuing to discuss its language before doing so. In her last public statement on the subject, her year-end client notice in December 2005, Whiting said the language of the code would be "finalized shortly."

But even now, as the MRC awaits federal approval on its final language, a Nielsen spokesman said the company still has not signed off.

"As far as Nielsen Media Research is concerned, we have reviewed two versions of the [Voluntary Code of Conduct] and provided feedback on both. In the latest round late last year, we were asked if we could agree in principle to the document. We said we could, though we still had additional comments on various elements," explained Nielsen spokesman Jack Loftus. "I think we're close," he added, saying that Nielsen has been waiting for the final document to be reviewed by the MRC board before finalizing its position.

Loftus said the MRC has informed Nielsen that the latest version has indeed been approved by the board and that Nielsen is merely waiting to review it before commenting on it.

"We look forward to completing this process," he said.

The MRC's Ivie said he could not discuss details of the final code until it has been approved by regulators and signed by the ratings services, but he implied that the spirit of it had not changed significantly since it was originally proposed in early 2005.

"The concept of the code and the principals that are behind it have not changed over time. Basically, this code documents the way we do business, and how the ratings services need to do business with us. I think it's fair to say the principles that we laid out in the congressional hearings are still in there," Ivie confirmed.

Chief among those is a commitment by research companies not to deploy new ratings services as commercial currency until they have been accredited by the MRC.

However, determining when a ratings service is actually being used as commercial currency may be somewhat subjective, and rarely involves an official statement by a ratings company. It's more of a market-based consensus.

Nielsen, for example, has agreed to begin providing so-called "commercial minute ratings" beginning this fall, but has not stated whether they could be used as the basis for commercial decisions such as buying and selling advertising time. In the past, Nielsen has occasionally introduced new forms of ratings data, but stipulated that it was only being made available for comparative purposes before they were rolled out as commercial data.

To date, Nielsen has not stated that about the commercial minute ratings. But even if it did, it ultimately would be up to buyers and seller to determine what they used as the basis of their deals, not Nielsen or even the MRC.

A consortium of Nielsen clients being organized by Mediaedge:cia's Rino Scanzoni and NBC Universal's Alan Wurtzel is scheduled to hold a summit Sept. 21 at NBC's offices to discuss next steps for the new ratings.