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Playing Race Card in TV Ratings

Critics of Nielsen unfairly assail its 'people meters.'

June 25, 2004|Susan Whiting

Is providing more accurate TV ratings a civil rights problem? News Corp., which owns and runs Fox and UPN TV stations in Los Angeles, New York and other cities, would have us think so.

It is spending millions of dollars to stop a better ratings system in these markets. It has funded an organization called Don't Count Us Out to run ads, organize protests and issue daily press releases. But as much as News Corp. wants to say it is supporting people of color, these acts are really just parts of a smokescreen for its own short-term corporate interests.

Nielsen Media Research is planning to introduce its "people meter" in Los Angeles in July. This electronic data-collection device, which would be placed in the viewers' home, is the most reliable, efficient and scientific way to collect TV viewing information. In an environment where the average household has at least three TV sets, each capable of receiving more than 100 channels, plus TiVo and soon 100% digital television, an electronic measurement system is a must, not a luxury.

The people meter electronically monitors what is being watched, and for how long, on the sets of randomly selected Nielsen families. The outdated handwritten diaries now used sometimes missed some viewing because the diary-keeper forgot to write it all down. Unlike the diary, the people meter picks up all that grazing -- the five minutes here, 10 minutes there -- and many new channels get noticed.

Unlike what critics are saying, this system gives a more accurate picture of what people are watching. Network programmers can then use this information to develop shows that reflect what people want to see.

Recently, a confidential audit of our New York sample was leaked to the Los Angeles Times. Let's be clear about what this audit did not say. It said nothing about undercounting persons of color. It said nothing about flaws in people-meter technology. And it said nothing about delaying the introduction of people meters into local markets.

Here's what the audit report did say. Out of about 85 categories audited, four items were identified as problems. One was racial identification. The audit found a discrepancy on race in two of the 30 audited homes, 12 of which were listed as African American. In both cases, this was because of differences in the way mixed-race households reported their race, depending upon who answered the question. Racial identification is a complex issue for many American families, and we are working on a better way to ask this question so that we will get more consistent answers, regardless of who is answering.

The New York audit also found that fault rates -- the percentage of homes with communications errors, unplugged meters or improper usage of the meter -- rose in some areas. At one point, the fault rate for African American households reached 25%, compared with an overall average of 16%. Some of this may have been because of the active campaign against Nielsen in communities of color. We have hired more field representatives, and fault rates have been brought back to ordinary levels.

And that's pretty much it. Some of these issues have been corrected, and the others will be corrected soon. This is typical of the audit process. Our services are audited every year, and identifying and correcting issues is part of the give and take.

So what's the problem? It's true that under the ratings measured by the people meter, not as many people of color are watching certain UPN programs with African American themes or Fox shows with mainstream themes. Instead, people of color -- like everyone else these days -- are watching a wider variety of programming, including niche cable networks, which people meters are picking up.

Since lower ratings means lower advertising revenue, News Corp. has responded with a campaign against Nielsen and people meters that has played the race card again and again. Its actions contrast significantly with those of other TV groups like CBS, Univision and Tribune, which -- despite their varying concerns about the roll-out of local people meters -- have not funded any campaigns against the system.

The bottom line is that with local people meters, everyone counts. The people of Los Angeles deserve to know that the Nielsen samples are representative of the diverse populations that we measure, that our technology is the best there is and that Nielsen will continue to listen to our clients and to community leaders and to improve our services.

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Susan Whiting is chief executive officer and president of Nielsen Media Research.

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