Regulatory Bill Would Benefit News Corp.
Four Republican Senators are pushing a bill that would regulate Nielsen Media Research for the first time in its history, which, if passed, would represent a major win for Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. in its more than year-long drive to bring the television ratings company to heel.
The measure, introduced just before the July Fourth recess by Sen. Conrad Burns (Mont.) and co-sponsored by Sens. George Allen (Va.), Mel Martinez (Fla.) and Olympia Snowe (Maine), would require Nielsen to win a go-ahead from a private industry group before rolling out new audience-counting technology.
In a “Dear Colleague” letter, Burns argued that the bill would protect a vital public interest by subjecting Nielsen to private oversight, though he added, “It is not a bill about Nielsen Media Research, or any other company.”
The bill’s introduction follows a campaign by News Corp. — which is often associated on Capitol Hill with its right-leaning Fox News network as well as other broadcasters — to find Senators to pick up the draft bill.
In addition to broadcasters deploying hired lobbyists on the bill, Lachlan Murdoch, Rupert’s son and a senior officer at the company, personally reached out to lawmakers on the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, staffers and lobbyists close to the discussions confirmed.
Burns, himself a former broadcaster, said that in crafting the bill, he solicited input from all interested parties, including Nielsen.
“However, at the end of the day, I took the legislative approach I thought most appropriate to deal with this situation,” he said in a statement. “I felt this approach, which does not involve any kind of government oversight, will help keep the system transparent and accountable to TV programmers, broadcasters, advertisers, and the public.”
Nielsen argues that it was unfairly cut out of negotiations.
“What really surprised us with the filing of this bill was we weren’t given any chance to input and it was all, from our understanding, at News Corp.’s call,” said Nielsen spokeswoman Karen Gyimesi.
A spokeswoman for Burns said all interested parties were given the bill 48 hours before its introduction, and all had the same opportunity to comment.
At issue in the dispute between broadcasters and Nielsen is new digital technology the company is deploying to try to better gauge which television programs are being watched in local markets.
Nielsen contends that the new method is more accurate, but broadcasters counter that it undercounts several demographic groups, which threatens to sap millions of dollars in advertising revenue from shows their affiliates broadcast locally.
The introduction of Burns’ bill comes as Nielsen rolls out the technology in Washington, D.C., a top-10 television market nationally. Broadcaster complaints about inaccuracies convinced Nielsen to delay the transition, which was originally set for June 2, by a month. But the digital counters have since been deployed.
The Burns bill, called the FAIR Ratings Act, would require Nielsen to get approval for its audience counters from the Media Rating Council, an industry group.
Nielsen in the past has sought to cast criticism of their new technology, known as Local People Meters, as being driven singularly by News Corp.
Indeed, according to the file-creation record attached to the electronic version, an early working draft of the bill was written by David Leach, a former Democratic staffer on the House Energy and Commerce Committee who now works as an outside lobbyist for News Corp.
“I’m not going to confirm or deny” writing the draft, Leach said, declining further comment on his work for the company.
That draft, dated April 26, is barely more than two pages and simply requires any television ratings service to be accredited by the MRC. It says disputes between the ratings service and the MRC should be settled by an arbitration panel.
A second draft, also bearing Leach’s electronic imprint and curiously dated a day earlier than the first, weighs in at seven pages, with far more detail — including language not as favorable to News Corp.’s position. Major portions of this version closely track the bill that was finally introduced.
Jennifer O’Shea, a spokeswoman for Burns, said that the reason Leach’s name shows up in the file-creation information for the second draft is that Burns’ staffers liked its formatting.
She added that the final draft reflects more than a year of research, gathering input from industry groups and experts.
News Corp. is not alone in seeking to regulate Nielsen. Several other broadcasting companies have recently joined the fight and are supporting the Burns legislation. Lobbyists for Gannett, Tribune Company and Allbritton Communications recently made rounds on Capitol Hill with a team from News Corp. They met with Commerce Committee member staff and talked up the need to police Nielsen.
But lobbyists for each company said they had no hand in crafting the language in the Burns bill.
While News Corp. supports the bill, and supplied Burns’ office with input to help shape it, the company did not write the measure, said Howard Wolfson, a Democratic strategist speaking on behalf of the company.
“We think it’s an important step in correcting problems presented by Nielsen’s monopolistic practices, but it’s Sen. Burns’ bill,” Wolfson said.
Gannett spokeswoman Tara Connell added, “We did not have a hand in drafting it, but we are on the record supporting it.”
Likewise, the co-sponsors said they signed on after receiving a final draft from Burns’ office, spokespeople for the Senators said.
“Our staff didn’t have a direct hand in crafting the bill,” Allen spokesman David Snepp said. “Once Sen. Burns completed work on it, our staff met with both sides of the issue. After reviewing the draft, Sen. Allen felt the Burns bill was a very reasonable approach on the need to instill accountability in the television ratings system.”
It is not unusual for lobbyists to suggest legislative language, and lawmakers often publicly convene “stakeholder” meetings to gather input from lobbyists whose clients stand to be affected by potential legislation.
The key for lawmakers and their staffs, according to Craig Holman, a lobbyist for Public Citizen, is to fully vet input from lobbyists.
“Lobbyists have a lot to offer when it comes to legislation — that’s what they’re there for,” Holman said, noting he himself often submits recommended legislation to staffers. “But it is always up to the Member of Congress to offer final advice.”
Burns hopes to hold a hearing on the bill later this month, his spokeswoman said.
This year, News Corp., between its PAC and employee donations, has contributed $11,000 to Burns, Allen and Martinez. Snowe received no money from the company.
That’s up substantially from the 2004 campaign cycle, when News Corp. gave just $1,000 to Allen and nothing to the other three.
Last year, the company spent about $2.7 million on its lobbying operation, according to PoliticalMoneyLine.
Nielsen does not have a PAC, and its employees have contributed nothing so far this year. However, the company spent about $1.3 million on lobbying last year — its first with a presence in Washington.