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African-American leaders oppose Burns bill

In advance of Tomorrow's hearing on Sen. Conrad Burns' (R-MT) bill to regulate TV ratings, Nielsen is making its own lobbying push. Rev. Jesse Jackson, who had previously endorsed Local People Meters (LPM), has released a letter opposing the Burns bill, co-signed by a number of African-American TV producers and other civil rights leaders.

"We are disappointed that Senator Burns has introduced this bill because it will harm the audiences of color," said the letter, addressed to the top two members of the Senate Commerce Committee, Chairman Ted Stevens (R-AK) and Vice Chairman Daniel Inouye (D-HI). The letter noted that with LPMs, "programs produced by or featuring people of color that appear on smaller and newer networks - - especially on cable TV - - are showing up in the local ratings for the first time." It went on to accuse "some corporate interests in the media business" of pushing the Burns bill to "keep more advanced technology out of the market. In addition to Jackson, the letter was signed by Dorothy Height, Chair, Executive Committee, National Council of Negro Women; Marc Morial, President and CEO of the National Urban League, Debra Lee, President and COO, BET (although Viacom's O&O TV group has publicly expressed concerns about LPMs); Johnathan Rodgers, President and CEO, TV One; Don Jackson, Chairman and CEO Central City Productions, Inc.; Byron Lewis, Chairman and CEO, Uniworld Group; and independent filmmaker Warrington Hudlin.

The Hon. Ted Stevens, Chairman
Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation
U.S. Senate
508 Dirksen Senate Office Building
Washington, DC 20510-6125

The Hon. Daniel Inouye, Vice Chairman
Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation
U.S. Senate
560 Dirksen Senate Office Building
Washington, DC 20510-6125

Dear Senators Stevens and Inouye:

Last week, Senator Conrad Burns (R, MT) introduced S. 1372, the so-called "FAIR Ratings Act." This harmful legislation would seriously disadvantage television programmers, businesses, advertisers and audiences of color. We are disappointed that Senator Burns has introduced this bill because it will harm the audiences of color.

Accurate television audience measurement ratings, which help determine what America gets to watch, are of enormous concern to people of color. For generations, our people have been underrepresented or misrepresented on TV and behind the cameras, which is why we strongly support more reliable methods of measuring all television audiences. This bill would delay and even perhaps prevent methods that are more reliably measuring audiences of color from being more widely used in the marketplace.

In just one example, Nielsen Media Research, which has been using the electronic People Meter system to measure national TV audiences for close to two decades, is finally introducing this advanced technology into local television markets. Consequently, programs produced by or featuring people of color that appear on smaller and newer networks - - especially on cable TV - - are showing up in the local ratings for the first time.

These shows are catching the attention of programmers and advertisers, thus leading to more opportunities for minority-owned production companies, as well as for writers, directors, performers, technicians and executives of color.

At the same time, Nielsen is doubling the size of its sample in these Local People Meter markets, allowing for the acquisition of more and more detailed information about the viewing habits of the diverse groups that make up people of color collectively.

This more precise measurement system and the improved sampling method are both critical to accurately measuring the viewing activities of people of color. That is why we are greatly dismayed that some corporate interests in the media business, who have rarely if ever shown particular sensitivity to fair representation of people of color, are attacking Nielsen and pursuing legislation to keep more advanced technology out of the market.

The current attempt by some broadcasters to subject Nielsen to government control by turning the Media Rating Council - - the voluntary industry association that accredits TV ratings - - into a virtual regulatory body would inject the government into an area that the industry has always successfully handled on its own. The Bill would make it nearly impossible to make improvements in TV ratings technology, and would make it harder to more accurately measure people of color and other television audiences.

The FAIR Ratings Act would significantly restrict Nielsen's use of other new measurement technologies like those for Video on Demand and Digital Video Recorders to more accurately record audience preferences for many new and diverse programs. This would discourage development of VOD content aimed at audiences of color if companies can not get ratings on who is watching these programs. Companies like TV One are developing innovative programming in this area, and it is important the technology to measure their audience comes to market without the government intervention proposed by Senator Burns.

The bill would be especially harmful to smaller networks, stations and advertising agencies - - particularly those owned and/or operated by Latinos. Because of the way Nielsen's local Spanish-language ratings are assembled, they cannot be accredited under the MRC's rules. The large cost of meeting the MRC's rules would make it impossible for local Spanish-language stations to afford an MRC-accredited service. This would have a serious economic impact for station owners, advertisers, and advertising agencies in the Latino Community.

The fact is, all segments of the TV audience, and all advertisers and programmers should be pushing for the same thing - - the most reliable method of measurement available. We are convinced that Nielsen's Local People Meters and its larger samples provide that for all audiences and especially audiences of color. Not only do they produce ratings that are more accurate, but also more democratic, because they include a wider array of shows and viewers alike. That is a vast improvement over the old method of having people fill out paper diaries to record what they watched on TV.

Therefore, we support the introduction of Local People Meters and other advanced measurement technologies in our communities, and oppose against any attempts to restrict these far more effective means of measuring audiences of color. We urge you to oppose the Burns FAIR Ratings Act because of its potential harmful impact on our communities.

Reverend Jesse L. Jackson, Sr.
Founder and President
Rainbow Push Coalition

Dorothy Height
Chair, Executive Committee
National Council of Negro Women

Warrington Hudlin
Black Independent Filmmaker

Debra Lee
President and COO

Johnathan Rodgers
President and CEO
TV One

Don Jackson
Founder, Chairman and CEO
Central City Productions, Inc.

Byron Lewis
Chairman and CEO
Uniworld Group

Lawrence Parks
Potomac Coalition

TVBR observation:
As we noted yesterday, the Burns bill is anything but "FAIR" and won't do anything to make TV ratings more accurate (7/25/05 TVBR #144). Yes, there are concerns about the sample composition and fault rates for LPM - - and broadcasters should hold Nielsen's feet to the fire until those issues are resolved. The Burns bill won't fix any of those things, but it will result in needless costs for broadcasters and make it more difficult than ever to improve TV ratings going forward. Contrary to what we're hearing from a few of you, TVBR is not opposing the Burns bill to help Nielsen or attack the NAB - - we're opposing the Burns bill because it is bad for broadcasters. In fact, we took our position in strong opposition to the legislation before either the NAB or Nielsen announced their positions. We still hold out hope that the NAB will rethink its stance and help to stop this misguided effort to put another layer of federal regulation on the shoulders of America's broadcasters.

Television Business Report
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