After operating largely out of the public eye for half a century, the company measuring the number of people who watched "Law & Order" on Wednesday night is unwittingly starring in its own drama.
For weeks, Nielsen Media Research has been pummeled publicly by a group dubbed the Don't Count Us Out Coalition, which is made up primarily of Latino and African American advocacy organizations opposed to the TV rating firm's plans to modernize how it measures viewing habits.
"If the Nielsen company gets their way, some of our favorite TV shows could be canceled," says a recorded telephone message sent by the coalition intended for black households in New York. "That is why the NAACP has called on Nielsen to stop and get their act together before they miscount us again."
But what the message -- and a daily barrage of other statements issued by the group -- neglects to say is who is funding the campaign. The answer: News Corp., one of the nation's largest media conglomerates, whose Fox television stations stand to lose tens of millions of dollars from the Nielsen changeover.
In fact, what makes the coalition most extraordinary is the way it unites political opposites as bedfellows.
At the helm of News Corp. is Rupert Murdoch, who has used his media empire to push a political agenda embraced by conservatives. Yet it's Democratic politicians and activists who are the coalition's public face.
"Most of the people who are aligned against Nielsen here would not normally be allies with Fox -- and that's putting it mildly," acknowledged coalition consultant Mark Fabiani, a former top Clinton administration aide who once denounced Fox News as "an avowed enemy."
The Don't Count Us Out campaign aims to delay Nielsen's efforts to launch today in New York and next month in Los Angeles a system that uses electronic boxes and push-button devices to record what TV programs people watch. The setup is designed to replace antiquated handwritten diaries that have been used since the 1950s to establish TV advertising rates.
Critics contend that black and Latino households have long been undercounted as part of Nielsen's sample audience. The fear is that the new system will make the problem worse.
"There are always clients who have questions about their ratings, but it's never gone from that to this whole firestorm," said Susan Whiting, Nielsen's chief executive. "And that is clearly related to News Corp.'s influence and money."
The stakes are high all around. With advertisers steering as much as $25 billion a year in business to local TV stations, "a ratings point here and there makes a difference," said S.G. Cowen media analyst James Marsh. "Anytime you change a system of measurement, there will be winners and losers. And the losers are going to fight, scratch and claw to make sure they don't lose too much."
For its part, Nielsen plans to charge clients a comparatively high fee for the electronic system, which provides daily ratings information. (It declined to provide details.) The old diary arrangement, by contrast, collects viewer data just four times a year during "sweeps" months.
The minority community groups involved in Don't Count Us Out say they are far from pawns of News Corp. -- even if the corporate giant is bankrolling the campaign, estimated to cost $2 million to $5 million. In some cases, they note that they have had problems for years with Nielsen's sampling.
"Did Fox recruit me? No," said Lorraine Cortes-Vazquez, president of the New York-based Hispanic Federation and a leader of the coalition. "I can't be any plainer than that."
News Corp.'s Gary Ginsberg said it was ludicrous to suggest that coalition members such as the Hispanic Federation and 100 Black Men were being exploited.
"The notion that they would be doing our bidding is laughable and an insult to the legitimacy of their concerns," he said.
What's more, News Corp. is not the only major media company that has problems with the Nielsen system, which is dubbed the "people meter." On Wednesday, Viacom Inc.'s CBS urged Nielsen to delay its rollout of the service until it can ensure that its sample is truly representative of all parts of the community.
"The world would not end" if Nielsen waited, said Ceril Shagrin, head of research at Univision Communications Inc., a Spanish-language network. "Nielsen is the only source of audience estimates. And when you only have one source for the data, that source needs to do whatever it can to make sure the estimates are accurate."
Still, even TV executives who believe that the Nielsen sample has some problems are grousing about what they see as News Corp.'s heavy-handed tactics. One industry insider called News Corp.'s actions "unconscionable," expressing worry that demonizing Nielsen will make it even tougher to recruit blacks and Latinos into the sample.