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Advertising Agencies Seek Probe of Nielsen

Antitrust authorities have been asked to look into business practices at the TV ratings firm.

November 22, 2003|Meg James | Times Staff Writer

Advertising agencies have asked federal antitrust regulators to investigate whether Nielsen Media Research Inc. is abusing its power as the only producer of national TV ratings, an attorney representing advertisers confirmed Friday.

The American Assn. of Advertising Agencies requested the Federal Trade Commission probe in September after Nielsen began charging fees to consulting firms that interpret the ratings for advertising buyers. Until this summer, Nielsen had provided the data for free to the consultants if they were working on behalf of an ad agency that had a contract with Nielsen.

The new Nielsen policy "amounts to charging twice for the same data," said Adonis Hoffman, legal counsel for the advertising association that asked for the federal inquiry.

"When you have such a dominant player in the market like Nielsen engaging in that kind of behavior, it's problematic," Hoffman said. "Our agencies have no place else to turn for this data."

Nielsen spokesman Jack Loftus said his firm had not been contacted by the FTC and that Nielsen had not engaged in any abuse. He said Nielsen instituted minimal fees -- generally ranging from $200 to a few thousand -- because it became expensive to deal with the proliferation of consulting firms and provide the data in a variety of formats.

"There got to be so many of these third-party processors, dozens of them," Loftus said.

Nielsen, a subsidiary of Dutch publisher VNU, provides audience estimates for broadcast and cable networks, TV stations, cable channels, satellite providers and advertisers. Past efforts to create a competing TV ratings agency have failed because of the cost and complexities of collecting the information.

Investigators are interviewing ad agencies executives, Hoffman said. The FTC declined to confirm the probe. The petition comes as Nielsen is under fire by the networks for the way it measures viewers' preferences.

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Reuters was used in compiling this report.

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