The US is witnessing an unholy row over the introduction of
a new system of so-called People Meters by the Nielsen Media Research Company
that’s resulted in fewer African-Americans and Hispanics appearing to watch TV, a
development that not only has liberals up in arms, but Rupert Murdoch as well.

His Fox TV network and its stations have especially high
viewing audiences amongst African-Americans and Hispanics, and the meters have shown a
dramatic drop in viewing habits that is proving extremely hard for anyone to
explain rationally.

Nielsen already uses the meters in national audience
measurement, and the row is over their introduction into the myriad local
markets in the US, a couple of whom, such as New York and Los Angeles, are
bigger than the entire Australian market.

The meters will be replacing the diary system and in some
ways it’s a bit of a replay of the row here in Australia several years ago when
the Oztam people meter system replaced diaries.

That saw the Nine Network’s ratings fall and those of Seven,
Ten and the ABC pick up slightly as for the first time people in the metering
panels had to record just what they were watching at the time, and not trust to
memory, as much of the diary-based system seemed to be based on.

That recording after the event favoured Nine and a strident
campaign from Nine – then led by David Leckie, who was being attacked at Nine
meetings by Kerry Packer – saw the Oztam panel system gradually refined, and
Nine’s ratings gradually recovered. But
that took the best part of a year to 18 months, depending on time slots.

Now in the US the same system has got Rupert Murdoch upset
because the people meters have shown a sharp drop in audience numbers among
blacks and Hispanics watching his local stations which are either part of his
Fox Network or the UPN Network.

There seems to be nothing wrong with the way the panel
meters are selected, the technology seems okay, but no one is happy. Recording the show being watched at the time and eliminating
the retrospective completion of the diary seems to account for some of the
losses but not all.

Some commentators on industry websites in the US say
there will have to be an ‘education’ campaign to get viewers more used to
recording their viewing habits immediately – as we in Australia know, that is a genuine part of the
problem with meters in the first few months of their introduction. But that has in turn led to racism
charges. According to the New York Times and the Economist, the
row has seen claims of racism levelled against Nielsen, which is struggling to
explain the differences.

And in the most unlikely of pairings, guess who is
on the
same side in this campaign. None other than Rupert Murdoch and Hilary
Clinton – the object of much savage commentary from his right wing
publications and the
FOX Pay TV News channel.

News owns local stations in Chicago (where a big Hispanic
community is growing rapidly, plus African-Americans) Los Angeles and New York.

The New York Times showed big drops in
programs on Fox stations in these cities and increases in viewer numbers for
programs on other channels.

And this is a big, big battle with the New York Times
estimating that the TV advertising will total $US47 billion this year, much of
it influenced by ratings. So the losses for Murdoch could be substantial.

But the companies and the critics can’t find anyone to
replace Nielsen, it has monopoly on audience measurement in the US.

Here it was knocked out of the game by the Oztam group in
the early 90’s

Nielsen still operates here in Australia with a big emphasis
on retailing and the internet.