People meter controversy: Nielsen local ratings under gov't scrutiny

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Media agencies are throwing their support behind the increasingly embattled Nielsen Media Research, now set to face a government investigation into its new audience-measurement system known as local people meters.

Reacting to claims that people meters do not accurately represent minorities' TV viewing habits, the House Energy and Commerce Committee last week requested that the General Accounting Office look into Nielsen's methodology. The House Energy and Commerce Committee is expected to send a letter to Nielsen this week to ask it to keep the paper-diary system in place.

"The issue is getting more and more politicized. We have more important things the government could be doing," said Kathy Crawford, president-local broadcast, WPP Group's MindShare.

committee prefers paper

Mary Barnaf, exec VP-director, local broadcast, Carat USA, echoed her concerns, saying: "These are the days of the auditors auditing the auditors."

Jon Tripp, a spokesman for the committee, said: "The [committee] wants the GAO to look at local people meters because there are varied findings, combined with concerns about their measurement of minorities." Committee Chairman Joe Barton, R-Texas, and Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., chairman of the committee's telecom panel, will request Nielsen stick with paper diaries until the GAO study is complete.

The local people meter is a set-top-box that records every household member's flick to a new station. About 800 households are set to begin recording their viewing habits June 3 in the New York market. The launch was set for April, but was delayed because of the furor over the issue of whether minorities would be accurately counted until after May sweeps.

Rich Hamilton, North American CEO, Publicis Groupe's ZenithMedia, said two systems running side by side, paper diaries and people meters, would be "unproductive." Ms. Barnaf believes people meters are more accurate since they collect data over 52 weeks rather than during the sweeps periods when paper diaries are used.

A spokesman for Nielsen, a unit of VNU, said last week, "We haven't received any request or any letter or direct communication and don't think we can respond until then." Nielsen has faced criticism from the National Association of Broadcasters and the Don't Count Us Out Coalition representing minority interests. The coalition condemned Nielsen last week for failing to appoint a single taskforce member more than a month after saying it would create a task force to investigate the complaints.

contributing: ira teinowitz

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