June 14, 2004
The Odd Couple vs. Nielsen
ASHINGTON, June 13 - The battle over Nielsen Media Research's plans to modernize the way it measures local television viewership has become far more than the typical industry dispute.
It has become a tale of political expedience, uniting a group of longtime Clinton advisers and Democratic politicians with the money of a political rival, Rupert Murdoch, and his News Corporation.
But more than that, the fight over whether Nielsen's new ratings system will severely undercount black and Hispanic viewers has brought the rapid-fire tactics of political campaigning to what began as a business spat. The News Corporation, some of whose media properties are known for conservative views, and its allies - including people who advised or worked for President Bill Clinton and Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton - have built a sophisticated political campaign to mobilize public opinion against Nielsen's plan.
In tight coordination with its Democratic advisers, Mr. Murdoch's company has spent nearly $2 million organizing news conferences and demonstrations, employing phone banks and buying advertisements in major newspapers and television stations around the nation, according to people who are closely involved in the campaign.
They also helped bring together an assortment of black and Hispanic civic leaders and groups who had long protested Nielsen's plans but who had not been all that organized. These black and Hispanic leaders, in turn, displayed the discipline of politicians in adopting a single message, one that is summed up by the name of the umbrella group they formed under the direction of the News Corporation and its political allies: "Don't Count Us Out."
In a matter of a few months, this broad-based campaign seems to have overwhelmed executives at Nielsen, whose long-running disputes with its media company clients have previously been kept internal and relatively civil. At one point, Nielsen was deluged with so many complaints provoked by the anti-Nielsen forces that its phone lines were jammed.
"What's unprecedented about this is the appeal through Washington lobbyists and community organizations," said Susan D. Whiting, president and chief executive of Nielsen Media Research in New York, owned by VNU. "It has turned into a very active, aggressive political campaign" that is seeking to present what is actually "a commercial dispute as an issue of unrepresented minorities in television ratings measurement."
"In our company's history, we've never had an attack orchestrated this way," Ms. Whiting added. "We were not ready for this."
As long as there have been TV ratings, which help determine where advertisers place commercials (more than $47 billion worth this year), there have been complaints about the accuracy and validity of the Nielsen data. When cable networks began to proliferate, the broadcast networks complained that the data overstated cable viewership. Now the flash point is how reflective Nielsen samples are of an increasingly multicultural American population.
This latest controversy centers on Nielsen's plan to measure ratings in big urban markets with the electronic devices known as people meters, which it has used since 1987 to gather its national ratings data. The people meters would replace less technically advanced set-top boxes and the paper diaries that Nielsen began providing in 1950. And they would allow local ratings to be gathered daily, rather than only during four-month periods known as sweeps, thus giving advertisers more detailed information on who is watching which television programs.
Nielsen's critics claim that its sample audience under the people meter system undercounts black and Hispanic viewers. As a result, they said, the new system will discourage networks from developing and showing programs aimed at those viewers and will discourage marketers from advertising on existing programs geared to them.
These concerns, and the possible loss of tens of millions of dollars in ad revenue, stirred Mr. Murdoch and his executives. The Fox Television Stations Group, a division of the News Corporation, owns local stations in Chicago, Los Angeles and New York that are part of the Fox and UPN networks, which have significant numbers of black and Hispanic viewers. During the winter, tests of the local people meters in New York showed steep declines in ratings for series on UPN that are favored by black viewers, like "One on One" and "The Parkers," and an increase in the ratings of programs on stations not owned by the Fox stations group.
Nielsen executives said the problem was not that people meters underestimate audiences for the programs in question, but that the diaries had long overestimated the audiences for these programs and others that air on broadcast television networks. Nielsen says that it intends to follow through with its plan to switch Chicago, Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco to people meters for local television programs this year as part of a plan to have the meters in the 10 largest markets by next year.
"We use people meters to measure Fox networks and stations nationally using the technology we've used since 1987," Ms. Whiting of Nielsen said. "We measure Fox Sports and Fox Sports en Espaņol and Fox News. What is it about this that's different?"
But other broadcasters have joined the News Corporation campaign. For example, Univision Communications, the largest Spanish-language broadcaster in the United States, sued Nielsen last week to block the changes in Los Angeles.
The feud between Nielsen and the News Corporation goes back several months. In early March, News Corporation executives asked to meet with their counterparts at Nielsen to discuss the results of the New York people meter test.
What happened at the meeting is in dispute. Ms. Whiting met with Peter Chernin, president of the News Corporation, and Lachlan Murdoch, who is the son of Rupert Murdoch and chief executive of the Fox stations group. Ms. Whiting said she was told that "if you go ahead, we will do everything possible to discredit you and the company in Washington and legally, and we will start a competitor."
"I have never been threatened like that before," she said. "So we knew it was serious."
News Corporation executives deny making the threat, saying the meeting was held so that Mr. Chernin and Mr. Murdoch could ask Nielsen to delay the introduction of the local people meters in New York until questions about the sample's representation of black and Hispanic viewers could be addressed.
That meeting led to the involvement of the Clinton camp. The News Corporation turned to the Glover Park Group, a media consulting firm whose partners include Joe Lockhart, who was a press secretary under President Bill Clinton; Michael Feldman, who was a senior adviser to Vice President Al Gore; and Howard Wolfson, who was Hillary Rodham Clinton's chief spokesman during her United States Senate campaign in 2000. The introduction was made by Gary Ginsberg, a former adviser to President Clinton who is now the News Corporation's executive vice president, according to people involved in the discussions.
Glover Park, in turn, hired former Clinton operatives on the West Coast to handle the anti-Nielsen campaign there, chiefly Mark D. Fabiani, a former Clinton White House special counsel who worked on the Whitewater inquiry; and Christopher S. Lehane, who was also a counsel in the Clinton White House. Both men also went on to work for Mr. Gore's presidential campaign in 2000.
The Glover Park Group has been at the center of some of the biggest policy debates in New York City in recent years. Partners from the firm have been involved in helping organize campaigns against two projects favored by Michael R. Bloomberg, the city's Republican mayor: revamping the city charter and building a stadium for the New York Jets on the West Side of Manhattan.
The corporation and its political advisers wasted little time in making their case to the public. They placed full-page newspaper advertisements around the country, aiming quick and simple messages at the public in general and at black and Hispanic communities in particular, where the issue of voter disenfranchisement has great political resonance.
"If Nielsen is the ballot box for viewers, then shouldn't every vote count?" asked one advertisement.
In another, a white man in a suit in stands in a living room of a black family watching television. The headline reads: "Nielsen has control over what you watch. So shouldn't somebody be watching Nielsen?"
One person involved in putting together the advertising campaign said that such advertisements had particular meaning given the 2000 election debacle in Florida, where a disproportionate number of ballots cast by black voters were thrown out.
The attacks were relentless. In the span of two days earlier this month, the anti-Nielsen forces ran about 100 television advertisements against the people meters, according to both sides.
The anti-Nielsen camp's success at waging a political campaign in a business dispute has caught the eye of political strategists who were not involved in the fight. "These were absolutely smart political campaign tactics," said Hank Sheinkopf, a Democratic consultant in New York. "They identified the opposition's weakness and then exploited it in a short-term tactical adventure. It was all about constantly pounding away with a single message."
The involvement of its outside advisers has not always been made clear by the coalition. For instance, on June 3, Alex Nogales, the president of the National Hispanic Media Coalition, an organization that is part of the Don't Count Us Out Coalition, discussed, in a conference call with reporters, the possibility of the coalition taking legal against Nielsen.
The woman who arranged the call identified herself only as a representative of the coalition; e-mail messages alerting reporters to the call showed her name followed by an "@verizon.net" address. Only after questioning did the woman disclose she worked for Fabiani & Lehane.
Somewhat surprisingly, News Corporation had a network of Democratic allies that it was able to enlist when it decided to wage war on Nielsen. In recent years, the company has sought to cultivate relationships with Democrats, particularly among minority groups. The most obvious example of this was when the company's Fox News Channel agreed to televise the Democratic presidential debate that the Congressional Black Caucus sponsored last September in Baltimore.
But Glover Park played a role in recruiting Democratic politicians who might otherwise have had misgivings about working alongside a media company like News Corporation, among them Hillary Rodham Clinton, the junior senator from New York.
In fact, Mrs. Clinton has been a favorite target of Mr. Murdoch's New York Post, a tabloid that has long made her political advisers uneasy by publishing articles like a front-page article headlined "Shame on Hillary" that it ran during her Senate bid in 2000 after she embraced Suha Arafat, the wife of the Palestinian leader.
Mr. Wolfson, a partner in Glover Park who worked for Mrs. Clinton, played down the strange-bedfellow aspect of the fight. "This is an issue of fundamental fairness that cuts across the spectrum uniting lawmakers from both parties and dozens of civic organizations around the country," he said.
But some Democratic activists who joined the campaign against Nielsen acknowledged that they were uneasy about Mr. Murdoch's involvement.
Mr. Nogales, the president of the National Hispanic Media Coalition, said he found some of the content of Mr. Murdoch's news outlets to be loathsome.
"But more troubling to us is the Nielsen ratings system because everything starts there," he said. "If, in fact, there are Latinos who are not being recorded, then there is no incentive for the networks to hire Latinos or do Latino-themed programming. We are invisible."
Raymond Hernandez reported for this article from Washington and Stuart Elliott from New York.