WASHINGTON Even though the Federal Trade Commission said yesterday that it would not regulate the nation's TV ratings, the yearlong debate over local people meters is far from over.
In the latest twist, Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.), a senior member of the Senate Commerce Committee, fired off a letter Wednesday to the FTC expressing his dissatisfaction with the decision. In the missive, he urged the commission to reconsider, given "Nielsen's status as a monopoly," and that it "does not take the public interest into account as clearly and consistently as it should."
Burns' letter was released within hours of Nielsen's release of the FTC letter, which the TV ratings firm heralded as a setback for its critics. The FTC's letter, dated March 30 from Deborah Platt Majoras, chairman of the FTC, was sent in response to queries from about 20 congressional members earlier this year.
"I believe the FTC can and does oversee monopolies in other sectors where the public interest requires it," wrote Burns, who said that he hopes to have a second round of hearings on TV ratings later this year, and perhaps introduce legislation.
The controversy over the rollout of local people meters began last April when Fox Television and other TV groups questioned the ability of the LPM service to accurately measure minority TV viewing, leading to the formation of Don't Count Us Out.
Since then, the Fox-supported coalition has been on an aggressive campaign to seek regulatory oversight of the TV ratings firm, which has yet to achieve full Media Rating Council accreditation for four of its five LPM markets, including New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and San Francisco.
But, after meeting with representatives of Don't Count Us Out, the Media Rating Council and Nielsen, the FTC concluded that the MRC was doing the job it was created to do as the industry's watchdog organization.
The FTC also found that Nielsen, which is owned by Adweek parent VNU, did not engage in deceptive or unfair practices or misrepresent its ratings system or fail to disclose material facts about the system. In the absence of such violations, the FTC concluded that its involvement in the ratings "would not be within the commission's authority to impose quality standards for accuracy in audience measurement."
"It appears to the commission that the existing self-regulatory approach [of the Media Rating Council] is having a significant effect in attaining both extensive transparency and greater reliability in media ratings. In many circumstances well-constructed industry self-regulatory efforts can be more prompt, flexible and effective than government regulation," wrote Majoras.
Burns argued that while the MRC might be doing its job, Nielsen was not, since it lacks full MRC accreditation in four markets, even as it plans to roll out the service in Washington and Philadelphia in the coming weeks. "Should the current implementation of LPMs not be found in compliance with the MRC on differential fault rates and other accuracy issues, stronger regulation of Nielsen as a monopoly provider of an essential public service would clearly be justified," Burns said.
Armed with the FTC's letter, Nielsen had taken the opportunity to ask that its critics stand down. "Given this clear signal from the FTC, we believe the very small number of media companies who favor government regulation would do a real service to the TV industry if they'd drop their self-serving fight against Nielsen and work cooperatively with us in the MRC," said the company in a statement.
The decision didn't seem to deter Don't Count Us Out from its goal of seeking "meaningful oversight" of the "Nielsen monopoly" through Congress. "Nielsen has been put on notice by the members of DCUO, 24 bipartisan members of the House and Senate, its own clients, and many others that the lack of accountability in the ratings system is unacceptable and will not be tolerated," said Cynthia Rotunno, executive director of DCUO, who added that the coalition's actions have not been in vain. "Today, largely due to our efforts, Nielsen has appointed a task force who has made recommendations that mirror many of the suggestions of the coalition."
This story updates an item posted on April 6 with news of Burns' letter.