- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Did the Washington area’s ABC affiliate cross a line or two when it aired a news report last week on problems with “local people meters,” Nielsen Media Research’s new system to measure local TV ratings?

A Nielsen spokesman said WJLA-TV (Channel 7) broke a rule that prohibits broadcasters from airing stories about TV ratings during periods when those ratings are being measured, as they were last week.

But managers at the station said it was reporting on legitimate news, although they acknowledge that WJLA’s corporate parent, Allbritton Communications Co., has criticized the meters.

This one is complicated, so let’s take it from the top.

Allbritton executives and managers at other TV stations complained last week that Nielsen’s meters — scheduled to be introduced tomorrow — aren’t ready for prime time.

The meters — electronic devices that measure audience sizes and habits — will essentially replace the written diaries that households use to record their viewing patterns for Nielsen.

WJLA — the only local station to air a report on the meters debate — ran its story during its 5 p.m. newscast May 24. The Washington Times and at least two other publications cited potential problems with the meters in stories later in the week.

Gordon Peterson narrated WJLA’s report, which included an interview with Rep. Albert R. Wynn, a Maryland Democrat who said he is concerned that the meters don’t reflect the viewing habits of minorities, and a statement from Nielsen defending the devices.

Nielsen has two beefs here.

First, WJLA violated Nielsen’s rule against airing a news report about ratings during a ratings sweep, Nielsen spokesman Jack Loftus said.

WJLA’s story aired near the end of the May sweep, one of several periods annually during which TV stations try to raise ratings so they can charge more for airtime.

Nielsen doesn’t want stations to report on ratings during a sweep because it could unfairly skew the numbers, Mr. Loftus said. If you are a member of a Nielsen household and hear that a local station is airing a news report on Nielsen, you are more likely to tune in, artificially inflating that station’s ratings, he said.

Frederick J. Ryan Jr., Allbritton’s vice chairman and president, said the rule doesn’t apply when Nielsen is the subject of “legitimate” news.

“I knew Nielsen was powerful, but I didn’t know they were more powerful than the First Amendment,” he said.

Nielsen’s second gripe? “Information in the story was flat-out wrong,” Mr. Loftus said.

The report Mr. Peterson narrated — which another WJLA staffer prepared — indicated that the Media Ratings Council, an independent group that audits TV ratings, has said the meters are “undercounting” minorities and younger viewers.

The council has made no such statement, its chief said yesterday. Mr. Ryan countered that complaints about the new system are widespread.

Is there a bigger question here? Is all this another example of a TV station’s owner using its newsroom to advance its business interests?

No, say Allbritton executives, adding that they did not make WJLA do the story.

“It was my idea,” said Bill Lord, WJLA’s vice president of news. “It was a good story. I feel good about it.”

• Call Chris Baker at 202/ 636-3139 or send e-mail to [email protected]

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