Thanks to a June court victory, Nielsen Media Research is continuing to replace its 50-year-old paper diary television rating system with electronic “local people meters” (LPMs), despite the uproar from critics. The LPM controversy caused an unlikely alliance between activist Al Sharpton and conservative media maven Rupert Murdoch, who charge that the LPMs have proven faulty and could seriously undercount minority viewer ratings. At stake are billions of dollars in advertising revenues, since networks charge for airtime based largely on ratings.
Murdoch’s FOX network, whose ratings fell under the new system, holds that LPMs record a person as having watched a show even if that person flips channels and tunes in for only a few minutes. Under that scenario, contends FOX spokesman Gary Ginsberg, “a person could watch most of a program on FOX, then turn to BET during the commercials and still be counted as having watched the BET show.”
BET, whose ratings rose with the LPMs, supports Nielsen. “For us, anything that is going to expand the participation of African Americans in the process is to our advantage,” said BET President Debra Lee.
Cheryl Pearson-McNeil, Nielsen’s new communications and community affairs vice president, says, “Statistically, you’ll always have change when you move from one methodology to another. Another reason for the change is that when people keep diaries, they sometimes ‘vote’ for shows by writing them in the diary even if they didn’t have a chance to watch it. With people meters, only the shows you actually watch get counted.” And regarding FOX’s concern she explains, “All information is gathered every 2.7 seconds while they are watching.”
Pearson-McNeil admits that reports of faulty equipment are still the biggest problem for Nielsen to fix. To answer critics, Nielsen and some members of Congress are studying whether the new technology undercounts black viewing audiences.