Networks Complain of Flaws in Nielsen Ratings Tool
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The leading system for television ratings faces an attack from at least one of the corporations that depend on it. Nielsen Media Research changed its methods three years ago. It's now using measuring tools called Local People Meters in seven of the 10 largest television markets. And as another fall season begins, the system remains controversial. Joel Rose reports from member station WHYY.
JOEL ROSE reporting:
One of the season's most hyped new shows is "Everybody Hates Chris," narrated by its creator, comedian Chris Rock.
(Soundbite from "Everybody Hates Chris")
Mr. CHRIS ROCK: When I was 13, my mother convinced my father to move us out of the projects. She always said project is just another word for experiment.
ROSE: An estimated 7 1/2 million people watched the show's premiere last week. It used to be that every family that agreed to participate in Nielsen's local surveys filled out paper diaries and many still do, but now in the biggest market, those diaries have been replaced by electronic devices that automatically record what's on each TV in the household.
Mr. JOSH LAHEY (Campaign Manager, Don't Count Us Out): The Local People Meter as a pure technology is better than paper diaries and golf pencils. The question really is how that technology is being implemented.
ROSE: Josh Lahey calls himself the campaign manager for Don't Count Us Out, a group formed last year to work against Local People Meters or LPMs. One of the group's concerns is that sometimes the LPMs fail to transmit data back to Nielsen. That's called faulting out, and Lahey says it happens more often when the LPMs are in minority households.
Mr. LAHEY: The fault rates for African-American families and for Hispanic families are significantly higher than those fault rates for white families.
Mr. DON LOWERY (Vice President, Nielsen Media Research): The fault rate is absolutely a bogus argument. That is just not what's important here. Important is the quality of the data that we actually report.
ROSE: Nielsen Vice President Don Lowery admits that larger families do tend to fault out more in part because they have more TVs and thus more devices that could malfunction, but Lowery insists that Nielsen has always accounted for statistical variations when it calculates its TV ratings, and he says the LPMs are doing very well.
Mr. LOWERY: We've had higher samples of African-American, Hispanics and Asian households, and the reporting so far in the past year shows we're getting consistently better results from those samples.
ROSE: In some cities, says Lowery, LPMs have produced better ratings from minority-themed programs. Before the boxes arrived in Philadelphia, for instance, the top-rated show among African-American audiences was the CBS drama "C.S.I." This spring, it was the UPN sitcom "Girlfriends."
(Soundbite from "Girlfriends")
Unidentified Actress: Toni, what is going on between you two? The tension is thick in here, girl.
Ms. JILL JONES: (As Toni Childs) Obviously, not that thick. You've been parked up here for four hours.
(Soundbite of laughter)
ROSE: Critics of Nielsen have said for years that the company could do a better job of counting minority audiences. Consultant Gale Metzger has worked in the audience measurement business for 50 years, 35 of them at Nielsen.
Mr. GALE METZGER (Consultant): I don't think the undercounting of minorities is the issue of the moment. I think that ongoing issue that's ever present, the issue of the moment, is changing methods without an adequate database being provided on the effects of those changes.
ROSE: But the critics, says Nielsen's Don Lowery, are often the people with the most to lose, particularly local broadcasters. The LPMs have shown they're losing viewers, especially younger, ones to cable.
Mr. LOWERY: When they saw those numbers go down, they created this organization.
ROSE: Indeed, the Don't Count Us Out Coalition gets funding from News Corporation, the parent company of the Fox TV Network. The coalition was organized by the Glover Park Group, a public affairs firm in Washington, DC. Don't Count Us Out spokesman Josh Lahey is also a vice president at the Glover Park Group.
Mr. LAHEY: A lot of the members of our group don't necessarily support all of the things that News Corporation supports, but in this case, News Corporation is right.
ROSE: What Lahey and other critics would like to see is more oversight of Nielsen. Because the company has a monopoly on TV ratings, consultant Gale Metzger says it should be more transparent about how it does business.
Mr. METZGER: You have to understand the strengths and weaknesses of those data if you are going to use them intelligently.
ROSE: That's what Metzger told a Senate committee at a hearing this summer. Bills proposed in both houses of Congress would give more power to an industry watchdog group. Nielsen doesn't like that legislation and neither do advertisers who say Local People Meters are giving them more and faster information. Nielsen is set to roll out LPMs early next year in Dallas and Detroit and next summer in Atlanta.
For NPR News, I'm Joel Rose.