Nielsen faces more resistance to meters

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The rollout of Nielsen Media Research's local electronic audience-measurement system continues to come under fire, with the emergence last week of evidence about problems with the sample methodology and the functioning of the device.

It now seems only a matter of time before Nielsen is forced to postpone further plans to roll out people meters in Los Angeles and Chicago. Nielsen is under pressure not only from a variety of broadcast networks and the National Association of Broadcasters, but a political coalition and now the American Association of Advertising Agencies.

The 4A's weighed in last week following revelations in the Los Angeles Times about the leaked results of an Ernst & Young audit of Nielsen, conducted for the Media Ratings Council.

The audit identified two major problems: the methodology employed to count ethnic audiences and the failure of the meters to transmit data. According to the Los Angeles Times, one in six viewers were improperly classified as black, and one in 14 categorized as Hispanic.

According to Joe Zubizarreta, chief operating officer of the largest Hispanic ad agency, Zubi Advertising, Miami, Nielsen's sampling of the Hispanic population has long been an issue. Zubizarreta wants Nielsen to remain with the paper diaries. (The company has said it plans to maintain paper diaries for three months alongside local people meters.)

other side of the fence

That's a particular problem for Viacom station UPN and News Corp.'s Fox, which has programmed shows such as "The Bernie Mac Show" and "Method and Red" that appeal to African-American viewers and which is bankrolling a widespread marketing campaign against the meters.

On the other side of the fence are media agencies. Allen Banks, exec VP-media director, Saatchi & Saatchi, part of Publicis Groupe, is concerned that the controversy is the result of an orchestrated effort to attack Nielsen.

"Nielsen has some work to do, but I am disturbed that some media companies have taken the position that they will undermine the effort instead of working with Nielsen. No one can believe that the diary is better than people meters."

The introduction of people meters has mushroomed from a small industry issue for Nielsen to one involving major political forces. Besides criticism from New York Sen. Hillary Clinton, local Democratic leaders in Los Angeles mobilized against the rollout on the grounds that minorities are not accurately represented. The public-affairs agency employed by News Corp. to run ads protesting people meters is also run by former Clinton/Gore aides. The Don't Count Us Out coalition, which has been working with News Corp. on the ad campaign against Nielsen claims the group's campaign has been rejected by Hollywood Reporter, which, like Nielsen, is owned by VNU.

The 4A's is urging Nielsen to speed up its process for improving the people meters ahead of the next meeting of the Media Ratings Council Aug. 1, although a 4A's rep declined to discuss the contents of a letter sent to Nielsen last week.

The Media Ratings Council is a committee formed to audit measurement systems, and executive director George Ivey said it's conducting an audit of the people meters next month in Los Angeles. The group said that once Nielsen had corrected the faults it would conduct an audit of the New York people meters.

Nielsen issued a statement June 17 addressing some of the criticisms that became public last week. The company said it was improving the reliability of its ratings technology and retraining its field staff.

A year ago, both CBS and Fox refused to support the people meters for a variety of reasons, though CBS Television's exec VP-research, David Poltrack, told Ad Age in May 2003, "Our discussions with Nielsen have to do with the business terms of the contract, and not with the issue of the local people meters." Data from the electronic meters are more costly than the paper diaries.

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