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Burns Says His FAIR Bill Will Play Fair

7/29/2005 8:00 PM Eastern

The controversy raged on last week over proposed legislation that would regulate TV ratings, with media companies and advertiser trade groups lining up both for and against the so-called FAIR Ratings Act.

The action was capped by last week's hearing before the Senate Committee of Commerce, Science and Transportation in Washington, D.C., where Nielsen Media Research argued against the bill sponsored by Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) — and the company's critics took aim at the ratings service.

After hearing pointed testimony both for and against his proposed bill, Burns said he was “amenable” to changing his legislation.

NO HARM MEANT

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

“I don't want to do anything that could damage it,” Burns during a two-hour hearing last Wednesday. “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 accountable for its data.

“If the voluntary system breaks down, then where do we go when they're the No. 1 company out there?” Burns asked.

At the hearing, six witnesses passionately argued for and against Burns's bill.

Tribune Broadcasting CEO Pat Mullen and Gale Metzger, the 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 advertising agency 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's 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 with 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.

VOLUNTARY CODE CHANGE

The MRC wants that code completed by Oct. 15, according to MRC 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 said. “Whether legislation is required is fundamentally an issue for Congress.”

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

Meanwhile, the American Association of Advertising Agencies (the 4As), the Association of National Advertisers, the American Advertising Federation and Arbitron Inc. were the latest in an ever-growing list of players to come out against the Burns bill last week.

4As LIKES SELF-REGULATION

In a letter to Ted Stevens, chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, 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.”

Also last week, a group of African-American cable TV executives and community leaders, led by the Rev. Jesse Jackson, said they were against the proposed legislation, which they claimed would ultimately harm of “audiences of color.”

The group included: Debra Lee, president and chief operating officer of Black Entertainment Television; Johnathan Rodgers, president and CEO of TV One; Dorothy Height, chairman of the executive committee of the National Council of Negro Women; Marc Morial, president and CEO of the National Urban League; Don Jackson, chairman and CEO of Central City Productions Inc.; Byron Lewis, chairman and CEO of Uniworld Group; and independent filmmaker Warrington Hudlin.

Oxygen Media Inc. chairman Geraldine Laybourne and Eastern Group Publications Inc., a large chain of Latino newspapers, also sent letters in opposition to the bill.

But Burns's FAIR Ratings Act has also picked up some proponents: the National Association of Broadcasters; ErinMedia, a new TV-ratings provider that has lodged an anti-trust suit against Nielsen Media Research; Alex Nogales, president of the National Hispanic Media Coalition; Gilbert Casellas, former co-chair of the Census Monitoring Board; Bertha Lewis, executive director of New York ACORN; and Richard Willis Jr., CEO of Mozell Entertainment Group.

In their letter Jackson, president and founder of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, and the other African-American leaders expressed their support for Nielsen's new Local People Meters, the rollout of which has led to a battle that has now wound up before the Senate Commerce Committee in the form of the Burns bill.

JACKSON'S 'DISMAYED'

“We are greatly dismayed that some corporate interests in the media business, who have rarely if ever shown particular sensitivity to fair representation of people of color, are attacking Nielsen and pursuing legislation to keep more-advanced technology out of the market,” the Jackson group wrote.

In their letter, the black leaders also charged that the bill would be particularly harmful to smaller networks, stations and ad agencies, particularly those owned or operated by Latinos.

“Because of the way Nielsen's local Spanish-language ratings are assembled, they cannot be accredited under the MRC's rules,” the Jackson letter states. “The large cost of meeting the MRC's rules would make it impossible for local Spanish-language stations to afford an MRC-accredited service.”

TV One, an African-American targeted network, is part owned by Comcast Corp. Comcast's ad-sales arm, Comcast Spotlight, has said it was opposed to the Burns bill, as has the San Francisco-based Asian-language broadcaster KTSF and an independent task force that was created last year to evaluate Nielsen's measurement of African American, Hispanic and Asian-American audiences. A similar bill has been introduced in the House by Rep. Vito Fossella (R-N.Y.).

September