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Congress takes harder look at Nielsen ratings

A congressional audit has been ordered on a new system for measuring TV viewership in big cities, which some critics contend will undercount blacks and Latinos.

In asking the General Accounting Office to look into Nielsen Media Research’s methodology, Congress wants Nielsen to delay full implementation of its new system in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, said Jon Tripp, spokesman for the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

The move is being spearheaded by Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., chairman of the House telecommunications subcommittee.

Nielsen, which has a monopoly on counting TV viewers, is switching to an electronic system for measuring local habits that it contends will be far more accurate. Currently, 500 households in a city are asked to record their TV viewing in a diary kept during four “sweeps” months. Nielsen is increasing its sample to 800 homes per city and measuring viewing every day through a “people meter” device attached to televisions.

Some critics say dry runs of the new system have shown sharply lower ratings for some programs popular in black and Latino homes.

That’s significant, because lower ratings mean lower advertising revenues, and an increased chance that TV networks will cancel these programs.

Congress isn’t interested in taking sides, but wants an independent look into the dispute, Tripp said. Nielsen should run its old and new systems side by side until the dispute is settled, he said.

“We haven’t heard anything from Congress with respect to an audit or anything else,” Nielsen spokesman Jack Loftus said. “I assume when we get a letter, we’ll look at it.”

Nielsen plans to start its new “people meter” system in New York City on June 3. The new system will be in place in Los Angeles in July and Chicago in August, he said. Boston is the only city where it’s currently being used.

Nielsen had planned to start in New York in April, but agreed to a delay and the appointment of a task force to study the issue at the request by U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y.

A task force hasn’t met yet, Loftus said.

A group called the Don’t Count Us Out Coalition has been actively fighting the changes. News Corp., owner of the Fox network and several local TV stations it believes will be hurt by the switch, also has protested.

Another group, the National Latino Media Council, issued a study last winter that charged the new system would underrepresent the growing Latino market. The study found, for instance, that Nielsen did not include enough U.S.-born Latinos in its sample.

This week, Nielsen said it had contracted with the University of Southern California’s Tomas Rivera Policy Institute to look into the media council’s study, which Nielsen says is flawed.

“It is long overdue and I’m very pleased that Congress has taken such a strong step because Nielsen has been getting away with this monopolistic attitude in research for too many years,” said Alex Nogales, spokesman for the National Latino Media Council.