Ratings Legislation -- A Tough Act To Follow

The political debate surrounding regulation of television ratings is heating up once again, with not one but two bills now working their way through Congress -- one in the Senate, the other in the House. What's clear is that prospects for a law regulating TV ratings - and indirectly, how TV advertising is bought and sold - has never been greater. What's not so clear is who is orchestrating the political agenda, and perhaps more importantly, toward what end and for what gain.

While it may be apparent that Nielsen Media Research opposes such legislation and anti-Nielsen group Don't Count Us Out is backing it, it starts to get murky from there. Step one degree away from these players, and most observers know by now that News Corp. is backing DCUO, and presumably is the primary lobby behind the so-called FAIR Ratings Bill introduced by Senator Conrad Burns, as well as the House's companion legislation, the so called Television Viewer Consumer Protection Act of 2005.

It's also pretty evident that the most vocal opposition of such legislation, the so-called Independent Task Force on Television Measurement, is also in Nielsen's hip pocket. The task force, which was first proposed by New York Congressman Charles Rangel, has been organized and underwritten by Nielsen.

Step one more degree away from center and the political alliances become much more uncertain, and their motivations, much less clear. Like Wednesday, when Edward Fritts, the powerful president-CEO of the National Association of Broadcasters sent a letter to Senator Burns supporting Burns' S.1372 legislation.

"While further modification of the bill may be necessary, we stand by ready to work with you and your staff to ensure a transparent, effective and fair media ratings accreditation process," he wrote.

Caveats aside, many TV industry observers were surprised to see the NAB jump so directly into the middle of what could be a political hot potato within the industry. While News Corp. and its Fox TV station group have been adamantly against Nielsen's methods and have pushed for oversight, regulation, and even law, the feelings have been decidedly mixed among other TV industry players who generally detest government regulation of any sort. And it's not just TV players who feel that way. There are some uneasy eyes peeled on Madison Avenue, as well as a few outside research suppliers who are watching this battle closely.

Another thing that makes the NAB's support so interesting is the fact that News Corp. isn't even a member. If anything, that would lead one to think the broadcast trade would side against News Corp., not with it.

"The NAB thing is big," says one News Corp. insider, noting, "Everyone always says, 'Oh, it's just Fox. Fox is the one doing all of this.' But this proves that it's a much bigger deal. When you get that sort of an association supporting this, it's hard to write it off as a corporate agenda."

Where the debate will turn next isn't clear either, though Congress is now expected to hold hearings in Washington on Wednesday to hear testimony related to the proposed legislation. It will be interesting to see who shows up. And who does not.

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