Behind The Local Peoplemeter Commotion. Explaining The Public Feud Between Nielsen & Fox

Nielsen is no stranger to controversy, but the latest ruckus it found itself in the middle of was more contentious than usual, largely because it got the attention of Congress and because it was so public. Over the past month doubts were raised about whether Nielsen's sample was representative of the Black and Hispanic populations, especially in the New York DMA.


Nielsen had planned to switch how it measures TV viewing in Los Angeles, Chicago and New York from diaries & household meters to local people meters (LPM) during the first four months of 2004. However, because of difficulties with sample recruitment in LA and Chicago, Nielsen decided it was best to delay their turn-on dates to June. New York, however, was experiencing no problems and was on schedule to begin LPM measurement on April 8. Then all hell broke loose.


Issues about the Black and Hispanic samples arose from two different sources. First, a study on the Hispanic market, conducted by a largely unknown company named Rincon, used question-able methodology and produced findings very different from Nielsen's Hispanic sample. Meanwhile, a community group in New York City, allegedly instigated by the Fox Station Group, expressed alarm over a ratings report, based on LPM test ratings from February, showing large declines in ratings among African Americans, especially for African American-targeted programs airing on the local Fox affiliate. Fox became extremely agitated about these declines and accused Nielsen of under-counting Blacks. The Fox Station Group, headed by Ruper Murdoch's son Lachlan, informed Nielsen it would take whatever actions necessary to derail the roll-out of local peoplemeters in New York. It hired a PR firm to organize protests among minority groups and to plant negative stories that aired on Fox-owned Channel 5 and in the Murdoch-owned New York Post (sample headline: "Nailing Nielsen"). These stories were picked up by other media outlets. Since the public isn't familiar with the statistical approaches used for sample design or the techniques used by Nielsen to capture viewing, it was relatively easy for Fox to shape the story to suit its purposes.




To those not familiar with how Nielsen gathers its data (probably 99% of the US), it appeared something was seriously amiss. However, most of us in the Media Research community (Carat included) have confidence in the soundness of Nielsen's sampling techniques and in its ability to put a representative sample in place. The Media Rating Council (MRC) sees to it that the quality of Nielsen's research is monitored and suggests adjustments or improvements when deemed

necessary. Furthermore, Nielsen makes extra efforts to recruit Blacks & Hispanics (e.g., larger cash incentives are given compared to White panel members) and, in fact, over-samples them. Additionally, Nielsen is putting into place procedures to measure viewing by Asian-Americans.


Changes in ratings between the diary method and peoplemeter are to be expected because they collect data in completely different ways. The diary is a relic from a time, long ago, when viewing options were basically limited to ABC, CBS & NBC, and no one had remote control. The diary, which depends largely on a diary keeper's memory, is woefully inadequate for accurately cap-turing viewing in today's dynamic viewing environment of 100+ stations and constant channel switching. We continue to believe, as we did in the 1980's when the peoplemeter first started providing national TV ratings, that peoplemeters provide better information.


Delaying the start date of LPM measurement in the New York DMA by two months wasn't an admission by Nielsen that there was a problem, but rather a gesture to politicians that it was willing to take a step back and delay roll-out until Congress and other appropriate parties were reassured. We applaud Nielsen for delaying New York's LPM service until June 3 because it defused its detractors and showed that the company wanted to make sure everyone was comfortable before moving ahead with LPMs.

Additionally, Nielsen was also concerned that the very public nature of Fox's & Congress' questioning might negatively impact its ability to recruit households to serve on their panel in the future, nationally as well as locally. Therefore, the 2-month delay has given it time to develop its own PR campaign to respond to Fox's charges. It turns out that community groups may even assist Nielsen by encouraging Black and Hispanic households to cooperate in the future.

Lastly, Fox's tantrum is a bit curious since the Fox network supports the people meter for its national ratings and the Fox affiliate in Boston also supports local people meters in that market. Additionally, the Fox News Channel will likely benefit as most cable networks do when people meters report viewing.


Although we've often had issues with how Nielsen conducts business with us, this is one instance when we support the company, not only for its roll-out of local peoplemeters, but for its reasoned response under pressure.

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