Lawmakers to Probe People Meters

Nielsen Media Research is having no easy time bringing its local operations into the Information Age. A recently announced Senate subcommittee probe is latest in a long line of obstacles for the audience measurement firm's transition from handwritten diaries to electronic devices called "local people meters." A hearing of the Senate Communications subcommittee is scheduled for July 15.

The initial rollout in New York City, scheduled for early April, was delayed for two months while opponents howled that the new measurement system was inaccurate. In the category of strange bedfellows, Fox News Channel and Univision led the charge against local people meters, or LPMs, ostensibly because they undercount minorities. However, Nielsen maintains that LPMs are more accurate because they track channel surfing--something people generally don't tend to write down. Nielsen further contends that LPMs would reveal lower ratings for Fox New Channel than the diaries reflect.

People meters have long been used to measure national viewing habits, and the numbers are quite accurate, according to many network research executives.

Nielsen finally started using the LPMS in New York June 4, but planned to continue also using the diaries for three more months to mollify critics. The company, a division of Dutch conglomerate VNU NV, also put together a task force of civic and business leaders to study its rating system, but that didn't stop Univision from going to court to block LPMs in Los Angeles. The Spanish-language network filed for an injunction in Los Angeles State Superior Court to stop the L.A. launch scheduled for July 8 but the judge denied the broadcasters' request.

"We are disappointed with today's ruling, but continue to believe strongly in the merits of our lawsuit," Univision said in a statement, adding that it would continue to pursue its case.

In the meantime, subcommittee Chairman Sen. Conrad Burns, (R.-Mont.) said Nielsen ought to cool its jets on LPMs.

"Nielsen should cease the use of the new LPM system in New York and delay any further roll-outs until they have committed to an independent review," Burns said in a statement announcing the hearing.

Longtime Nielsen spokesman Jack Loftus publicly expressed the firm's desire to appear on the hearing witness list, which has not yet been released.