Murdoch vs. Nielsen
The last caution is crucial for understanding the current imbroglio involving Nielsen Media Research, the TV networks, and Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. -- a battle that represents not a new stage in the media wars, but, like the Greeks at Thermopylae, the last stand of an old order.
As reported by The New York Times and others, Mr. Murdoch is spending heavily on a coordinated campaign to undermine Nielsen's attempts to introduce "people meters," already in use for national broadcast ratings, to measure TV audiences in local markets. News Corp. says it fears the meters will undercount the minority viewers who comprise a substantial portion of the Fox Network's broadcast audience.
The real fear
But that is not Mr. Murdoch's real concern. His actual worry is that people meters will be better than the diary system currently in place to measure audiences. He's not alone: All mainstream media companies are scared to death of improved measurement.
Years ago, in a Wired article I posited that our entire media-spindustrial infrastructure is undergirded by what I called the "Knowability Paradox": The less we know about how advertising and the media work, the more advertising and media there are.
Imperfect survey systems have been instruments of the Knowability Paradox. As long as mail-in reader surveys, personal diaries, recall tests and other flawed mechanisms for the measurement of audience size and advertising effectiveness predominate, mainstream media companies and ad agencies can continue to profit from the belief that mass media work. And they can support that belief using massive PR campaigns, trade ads, even -- as News Corp. has done in its current effort against Nielsen -- by hiring political consultants with expertise in minority-community organizing.
Mainstream media executives know what lies on the other side of the Knowability Paradox: accountability. The closer we come to being able to measure not only the real size but the exact composition of an audience, the more we subvert mass media owners' ability to persuade marketers that black, if not white, is at least very gray.
Nielsen has been here before. The broadcast industry fought people meters from the moment they were announced in 1989. The argument was not about the meters per se, but about the audience samples used to project their findings onto a larger population. But then as now, the industry's position was undercut by its willingness to accept more-flawed systems and worse by refusing to talk to market researchers, impelling a sampling crisis in the research industry. (Those who did talk could be just as troublesome. My own parents were a Nielsen family around this time, and regularly left the TV on PBS programs when they weren't watching, to artificially boost the network's ratings.)
The Internet's doing it
Skirmishes over measurement systems may continue, but mass media companies are destined to lose. The Internet, although not the solution to the Knowability Paradox, has introduced marketers -- the people who pay the bills -- to the culture of accountability. Not even Rupert Murdoch's money will make them turn their backs on that.
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Randall Rothenberg, an author and longtime journalist, is chief marketing officer at consultancy Booz Allen Hamilton.