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Burns: I’d Change Fair Ratings Act

7/27/2005 5:22 PM Eastern

After hearing pointed testimony both for and against his proposed bill, Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) Wednesday said he is “amenable” to changing his Fair Ratings Act legislation, which calls for mandatory accreditation of TV-rating services.

Burns, a former broadcaster and station owner, said he loves the TV industry and doesn’t want his bill -- which requires TV ratings to get the imprimatur of the Media Rating Council -- to have any unintended negative consequences on the TV business.

“I don’t want to do anything that could damage it,” Burns said during a two-hour hearing of the Senate Committee of Commerce, Science and Transportation in Washington, D.C. “I look forward to working with all of you to solve this problem.”

But at the start of the hearing, Burns also stressed that the bill was all about holding Nielsen Media Research accountable for its data.

“This is about doing business with the only game in town,” Burns said.

At the hearing, six witnesses passionately argued both for and against his bill. Tribune Broadcasting CEO Pat Mullen and Gale Metzger, former president of Statistical Research Inc., levied blistering criticism of Nielsen and its new “Local People Meters,” saying the proposed bill’s call for quasi-regulation of ratings was necessary for a company that was essentially a monopoly.

Noting that Nielsen has claimed that the proposed bill would lead to less competition and innovation in the ratings business, Metzger said, “It would be difficult to have less competition or less innovation than we have now … The issue is whether the Nielsen ratings data, when used as the currency, is really funny money. We just do not know enough about the Nielsen research quality.”

Metzger told Burns, “If Nielsen does not answer to the MRC, it answers to no one.”

In contrast, witnesses Nielsen CEO Susan Whiting and Kathy Crawford, president of local broadcast for MindShare Worldwide, argued against any kind of accreditation being forced on a TV-ratings service, saying it should remain a voluntary process.

Whiting testified that the Burns bill “is both unnecessary and harmful to the long-term interests of the entire television community.”

She pointed out that Nielsen was helping to formulate a voluntary code of conduct for the MRC that would address the rollout of new measurement technologies. In addition, if MRC members and measurement companies approve that code, Nielsen will abide by it, Whiting testified.

The MRC wants that code completed by Oct. 15, according to executive director George Ivie, who also voiced his concern that Nielsen has commercially deployed LPMs in several markets without an audit by his organization.

“We don’t want that to happen again,” he added. “Whether legislation is required is fundamentally an issue for Congress.”

Nielsen has committed to audits for its next three LPM rollouts, according to Whiting.

The American Association of Advertising Agencies and Arbitron Inc. are the latest players to come out against the Burns bill this week.

In a letter to Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, the 4As wrote, “The AAAA supports the practice of self-regulation in the area of media measurement, ratings and accreditation … The current system of voluntary compliance and cooperation in effect today promotes efficiency and innovation.”

September