Tuesday, April 06, 2004

Controversy Surrounding Nielsen Ratings

There's been a lot of interesting material out there, lately, on the Nielsen TV ratings plans to implement a new personal people meter measuring system in its ratings.

Mark Frauenfelder really captures the creepiness of the whole venture in terms of extending the reach of surveillance ever further.
I once read a creepy science fiction story about a world where people clipped a pager-sized electronic device to their belts each morning upon arising. This device, called a "Portable People Meter," was able to pick up specially encoded signals coming from televisions and radios. The signals had been "psychoacoustically masked" to render them inaudible to the human ear, and contained the name of the program that the PPM wearer was watching or listening to. The meter kept a perfect record of all the broadcast media the wearer consumed, making a note of the date, time, and duration of consumption.

The device also had a motion detector built into it, so it "knew" when it was being worn. Wearing the device was strictly voluntary, but people who enlisted to wear it were rewarded with a cash payment. The more they wore the device throughout the day, the more money they got paid.

At night, when the wearers were finished watching television for the night, and were ready to go to sleep, they'd unclip their meters and place them in special cradles on their bed tables. The cradles were connected to a central computer, which analyzed all the data it collected from the meter wearers. The company that made the PPM then sold this information to large corporations who wanted to monitor media consumption.

Bikini Insanity vs. Meet the Press

The reason I didn't tell you the name of this story is because there really isn't a science fiction story about a Portable People Meter. The Portable People Meter is a real device, manufactured by the Arbitron corporation, and it works exactly like I explained above. People in 15 countries are wearing Portable People Meters at this moment, and media companies are analyzing this information to figure out ways to get you to consume more media and buy more stuff.

Meanwhile, there have been protests regarding the roll out of this new system because it is said to systematically undercount minority viewers, as reported in this New York Times article, and elsehwere:

"Similarly, large declines were seen in the ratings for top Spanish-language networks," Mrs. Clinton's letter continued. "Without a thorough investigation into these statistical aberrations, I think it is fair to say that Nielsen would be remiss in pushing forward with its rollout plan."

In a separate letter to Ms. Whiting, Kweisi Mfume, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, expressed similar concerns, saying Nielsen's plans could imperil the "future of programming aimed specifically at African-American and Latino audiences."

The comments by Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Mfume echo criticism that has been leveled for weeks by other prominent lawmakers, most of them Democrats who represent black and Hispanic communities. Among them are John D. Dingell of Michigan, Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts and Hilda L. Solis of California.

Over at freepress.net, though, there's an excellent short essay on the dangers of rallying behind fixing the accuracy of these ratings as some way of empowering minority (or any) viewers.

The fact of the matter is that arguing over how Nielsen counts folks is a bright red herring. This is not an argument about how minority voices are counted in the media; this is an argument about how minority voices are counted in regards to providing demographic information for advertisers. The argument that "ratings give minorities a voice in their media" — and thus shape programming to reflect their views — is completely disingenuous.

Programmers and advertisers love to trumpet that Nielsen ratings represent the desires of the audience; if one show has better ratings, then it must be serving the public better, right? Hogwash.

A further interesting wrinkle is that one of the major agitators against the PPMs has been Fox/Newscorp, some of the reasons for which are explicated (or at least surmised about) here.

That's when the whole thing started to finally make sense. Fox and its parent News Corp. have been big opponents of Nielsen's rollout of local people meters and have recently begun playing the race card to delay the New York rollout, which News Corp. Deputy COO Lachlan Murdoch recently claimed Nielsen's local people meters "under-count" viewing to Hispanics and African Americans.

If that were the end of this tale, it would be no different than the scores of other corporate fronts that have been mounted against Nielsen over the years. But this one has taken on decidedly political overtones that appear to have crossed some ironic party lines. And the Riff wouldn't be surprised if Fox News' Ailes has been pulling many of those strings.

So, today, Nielsen announced that it has temporarily delayed the roll out of the PPMs.

It's definitely a case I want to follow and hope to delve further into soon.


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