Nielsen Media Research is delaying today's scheduled rollout of its controversial new TV ratings system after complaints by 17 major media companies nationwide and all of Washington's major broadcast stations, who say it undercounts minority audiences.
The Local People Meter (LPM) system, designed to deliver a more accurate snapshot of TV-watching habits in the Washington area, will launch June 30, according to Nielsen. A scheduled launch of LPMs in Philadelphia will also be pushed back a month.
"A lot of folks wanted us to delay and that was kind of loud and clear," Nielsen spokesman Jack Loftus said. "Most of the people we talked to said, 'Hey, look, give us a little more time to look at the data, to evaluate the data.' And that was reasonable."
He calls the June 30 launch "a definite."
Critics want Nielsen to wait until the LPM system is accredited by the Media Rating Council, a 40-year-old ratings watchdog agency created by Congress. The MRC has yet to put its stamp of approval on people meter systems that Nielsen launched last year in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, but it has accredited the LPMs being used in Boston and San Francisco.
Tom Herwitz, president of station operations for Fox, said Nielsen's decision to delay the LPM rollout by just a month does little to quell his concerns. "Nielsen is missing the point," Herwitz said. "These stations are asking Nielsen to get accredited. For Nielsen to delay . . . but refuse to get accredited is just wrong."
The Media Rating Council is an association of television, radio and advertising agencies that audits audience measurement companies such as Nielsen and Arbitron, the radio ratings company. Loftus described the rating council as a "quasi-government entity," and said Nielsen won't agree to prior accreditation, since it's a voluntary process anyhow.
"We want to work with the MRC," Loftus said. "We think their accreditation is a good thing but we don't think any rating service should have to get permission from the MRC [to rate viewership]."
LPMs are meant to replace two methods of collecting TV ratings. Meters in about 400 Washington homes currently provide Nielsen with only the TV tuning status of a home set -- on or off, what time, what channel. Nielsen augments the sample during the four sweeps months of February, May, July and November by asking a larger group to fill out a one-week viewing diary, which provides specific demographic data about the viewer.
People meters, on the other hand, would give the market immediate, overnight demographics from more than 600 area homes. Users, who have previously provided their demographic information, log on with a special remote, which then records their TV habits minute by minute.
Jerald Fritz, a senior vice president for Allbritton Communications, which owns WJLA, said the delay will at least give stations a chance to compare the people meters to the diary system. Stats from the diaries will come out June 11, and will be compared to the data collected by a trial run of people meters in May. "This gives us a little time to evaluate the demographics, not just the gross household ratings," Fritz said.
Nielsen's announcement comes just a day after 17 media companies -- including NBC, CBS and Fox -- released a letter sent to Nielsen President Susan Whiting last week that pointed to "flaws" in the LPM system.
"Accurate and reliable viewing data are the bedrock of the television industry," the letter, written by Tribune Broadcasting Co. President Patrick Mullen, reads. "Without it, the currency on which billions of dollars in advertising and programming expenditures rely will be needlessly devalued, to the public's detriment."
Stations argue that people meter "fault" rates are too high, referring to the percentage of households for which no usable ratings data was collected.
In the Washington market, critics note that fault rates have been as high as 25 percent for Hispanic homes and almost 20 percent for African American homes.
Fault rates occur for a number of reasons -- sometimes as simple as viewers forgetting to activate their people meters when they turn on the TV. Loftus acknowledged that fault rates are too high among minority homes, and also homes with large families, where controlling the people meter can get lost in the shuffle. Critics have also pointed to a failure on Nielsen's part to properly teach families how to use the people meter.
Allbritton's Fritz said he hopes the delay gives Nielsen time to put people in the field to help households learn to use the people meter. "We're going to watch [Nielsen] very closely to make sure those fault rates come down," Fritz said.