Minority Members Help Nix Nielsen Change

Posted April 6, 2004 at 6:08pm

Under pressure from black and Hispanic lawmakers, Nielsen Media Research announced Tuesday that it has postponed a controversial, but some say more accurate, new television ratings system for New York City that the lawmakers charged would undercount the number of minority television viewers.

Nielsen’s retreat, which comes a day before the plan was to take effect, is a significant victory for the minority lawmakers. In the past week, dozens of members of the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus urged Nielsen to hold off on the new television ratings system.

But the lawmakers’ victory would not have been possible without the behind-the-scenes help from an unlikely ally: News Corp., the media giant founded by Rupert Murdoch and known for the conservative rants of Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly.

Fearing the loss of millions of dollars in advertising revenue under the new ratings system, News Corp., the parent of Fox News, quietly rallied black and Hispanic lawmakers in Washington to take on Nielsen.

With the help of its own set of unusual partners, News Corp. lined up dozens of minority groups to oppose Nielsen, helped start a newspaper advertising campaign on Capitol Hill and in New York and persuaded dozens of members of the CBC and CHC to sign letters to Nielsen opposing the changes.

Jack Loftus, a spokesman for Nielsen, blamed the News Corp.-led coalition for forcing Nielsen to delay the rollout.

“There was no secret that there was a huge political campaign to get us to delay. There was a lot of heat,” Loftus said. Fox “told us at the get-go when they met with us that they would go after us and undermine us and go after our credibility. They told us they would try to destroy us and they were good on their word.”

News Corp. lobbyists declined to comment on their campaign against Nielsen other than to say that the company is “actively urging members to sign letters.”

One New York Democrat, Rep. Edolphus Towns, was so gripped by the network’s pitch that he signed a letter to Nielsen President and CEO Susan Whiting that was sent to him by News Corp.’s own lobbying team after making just a few changes.

“Nielsen must take the immediate step of delaying the introduction of [the new ratings system] until it can answer fundamental questions about their accuracy in counting minority viewers,” said the letter that Towns signed.

On Tuesday, Nielsen announced that it would delay its new ratings system until June and would appoint a committee run in part by New York Democratic Rep. Charlie Rangel to make sure that the new system does not undercount minorities.

News Corp.’s victory over Nielsen was not the first time that the Fox News parent has used Washington to score a victory in the marketplace.

But the tactics used by the network during its battle with Nielsen offer interesting insights into how one of the nation’s most influential corporations can use its power on Capitol Hill to help its bottom line on Wall Street.

At issue is a plan by Nielsen Media Research to roll out a new television ratings plan for local markets that it says more accurately captures what programs viewers are watching.

The new system uses an electronic system, rather than a paper diary, to measure television viewership. Members of a household press a button on a device provided by Nielsen when they are watching television, rather than writing down what they watch.

Nielsen says the “Local People Meter,” which has been used for national ratings for more than a decade, is “the gold standard for television audience measurements around the world.”

The issue is important because television ratings help determine how much advertisers pay for television ads.

But News Corp. and minority groups say that the Local People Meters undercount the number of minority viewers in local television markets by as much as 50 percent, although the reasons for that belief were unclear.

“Nielsen ratings from this past February in New York City contained inexplicable discrepancies between the new LPM ratings collected and ratings from current techniques,” members of the Congressional Black Caucus wrote to Nielsen last week.

Nielsen counters that the new system increases ratings for black and Hispanic households.

Regardless, minority lawmakers called on Nielsen to postpone the rollout in New York City “given the many unanswered questions,” according to their letter.

Likewise, News Corp. argued that the new Nielsen ratings system would cost its New York affiliate millions of dollars a year in local advertising revenue by undercutting the number of minorities watching Fox shows tailored to minority audiences, as well as its national sports coverage.

And that could have been just the beginning. Nielsen planned to roll out the new ratings system in other television markets, putting millions of dollars in ad revenue for Fox in jeopardy.

Though other networks such as UPN could be hurt by the ratings system, “Fox has been the most lathered by it,” said a lobbyist for a rival network. “You can lose your ass if your ratings are down 40 or 50 points.”

As a result, News Corp. began organizing a coalition in Washington earlier this year to take on Nielsen.

To solidify its political support in New York, News Corp. hired former Sen. Alfonse D’Amato (R-N.Y.) and his New York-based lobbying firm.

In Washington, News Corp. relied on a host of prominent Democratic strategists to help stir up the minority community, including two of former President Bill Clinton’s spokesmen; a top political adviser to former Vice President Al Gore; a chief strategist for the presidential campaign of Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.); and a founder of the shadow Democratic group that hopes to spend up to $80 million to defeat President Bush this fall.

News Corp. first began reaching out to black and Hispanic lawmakers at the end of March, less than two weeks before Nielsen planned to implement its new system.

But the network did not get much traction until a week ago, when it teamed up with Democratic strategist Minyon Moore to organize a meeting of CBC and CHC members to discuss the issue in the Rayburn House Office Building.

Moore, a consultant with the Dewey Square Group, is also a former Democratic National Committee official who last year helped create the anti-Bush group America Coming Together.

During the March 31 session, Rick Ramirez of Fox Entertainment News told the minorities that the new system could cut in half minority ratings for some shows.

The next day, the CHC wrote a letter to Nielsen to “express our concerns about the potential impact that the implementation of Local People Meters would have on ratings for minority-focused television programs.”

A day after the letter from the Hispanic lawmakers was delivered, 17 members of the CBC sent their own letter to Nielsen charging that the new ratings system would “disproportionately undercount minority viewers” and lead to the “wholesale cancellation of minority programming.”

They added: “The economic, social and cultural impact could be extremely severe.”

Separately, News Corp. helped a set of minority groups organize an anti-Nielsen coalition — called “Don’t Count Us Out” — that ran newspaper advertisements in Capitol Hill publications.

Another coalition ad that ran this week in The New York Times was signed by a host of minority and civil rights leaders, including the Hispanic Federation, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute and the National Puerto Rican Coalition.

The advertisement blasted Nielsen and directed readers to a Web site set up by Grassroots Enterprise, an organization run by former Clinton spokesman Mike McCurry.

News Corp.’s campaign drafted another former Clinton press secretary, Joe Lockhart.

Political consultants at Lockhart’s Glover Park Group contacted the offices of minority lawmakers to ask them to write letters to Nielsen complaining about the People Meters.

The Glover Park Group also provided the lawmakers with samples to help Congressional aides draft letters that hit all of the key points.

One of the letters drafted by the News Corp. consultants was signed by Towns, who made only minor edits to the sample letter.

“As a member of the Telecommunications and Internet Subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, I believe that this problem may deserve Congressional attention if it cannot be addressed by your company,” said the letter that Towns signed.