BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. For decades, TV ratings were based on handwritten diaries kept by so-called "Nielsen Families." Over time, far more accurate electronic devices, called "People Meters," have replaced the diaries to gauge national ratings. But those ratings show that television audiences for broadcast programs are smaller than the diaries suggested. So now that people meters are being introduced to measure local viewership, the technology has hit a wall of resistance from a group of broadcasters headed by Fox Network's parent company News Corp. and including Spanish language network Univision and CBS. Siding with them is a newly-formed coalition of ethnic minorities called "Don't Count Us Out," which says its constituencies will be under-counted, and therefore under-served by broadcasters. This Thursday, in a Senate hearing, representatives of Fox and Univision faced off against Nielsen CEO Susan Whiting. The hearing became so acrimonious that subcommittee chairman Conrad Burns felt moved to warn against "fisticuffs." In the end, though, lawmakers rejected calls for a regulatory solution and simply asked Nielsen to refine its sampling process. Joining me now is Simon Applebaum, contributing editor to Cable World magazine. Simon, welcome to the show.
SIMON APPLEBAUM: Great being here, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: One of the odd bedfellow pairings in all of this is this "Don't Count Us Out" Coalition and the Fox Network's corporate parent News Corp. Tell me how these two came to be on the same side of this fight.
SIMON APPLEBAUM: Well, this started out as a private fight. Fox raised some discrepancies based on some sample people meter data that they saw. They raised the issue with Nielsen; apparently they couldn't make the ends meet. And Fox apparently went to this group, got them going, and did fund them to a certain degree.
BOB GARFIELD: So if it was a grassroots organization, Fox was the Scotts Turf Builder.
SIMON APPLEBAUM: You could say that. And by the way, we don't know who is the executive director of this organization. We don't know what the makeup is. This is a coalition where there are organizations in the coalition, but there's no specific central organization that's running things.
BOB GARFIELD: It's true that News Corp. may be just losing sleep at night worrying about the minority population and whether they're getting the TV programs they want and deserve, or you could say they are just simply manipulating this group in order to flog Fox's business interests.
SIMON APPLEBAUM: You could say that. When these people meters are deployed, it generally does show that broadcast network television viewing is down, and cable network viewing is up. The irony is, is that some of that viewership that Fox may be losing with its stations or its network may be going to its cable services - whether it's Fox News Channel or FX or Fox Sports Net. Another irony here is that, for years, Univision did pose an issue with Nielsen about concerns about being undercounted. Univision is now the largest Spanish language network. Ratings are high. They dominate over Telemundo as well as other broadcast and cable nets in the Spanish language, but they're getting competition, and they are concerned that if these people meters are deployed, that network rating and, more important, their station ratings, are going to go down. And that's why probably they're getting involved in this controversy.
BOB GARFIELD: Nielsen has argued that, because the previous measurements were so unscientific, that they overestimated ratings. Any adjustment is bound to look as though undercounting is going on, whether for a minority population or not. Do they have a point on that?
SIMON APPLEBAUM: They do, Bob, because the previous system was one of memory. It was diaries. You had to fill them out month by month. And in an era where you have now not only analog but digital cable services, you have the personal video recorder, you've got more broadcast networks -- to memorize all of what you're watching and where you're watching and at what dial position is, is tough. The people meter has been around nationally for some time. It's proven that it works. Everyone involved in this whole issue, whether it's "Don't Count Us Out" or Fox or Univision, will say it works. The issue is how it's being implemented, how many people from people of color groups are involved, and more importantly, what comes out of that data.
BOB GARFIELD: Now there's an interesting footnote to all of this, and that is as local TV ratings are determined several times a year, there's a period called "sweeps" when there's a very close focus on who is watching and a very detailed demographic breakdown. What has corresponded with sweeps has been a lot of very lurid programming. If the people meters are deployed in most cities in the United States, will that mean that sweeps will no longer be used to pump the audience in any given market at any given time?
SIMON APPLEBAUM: Probably. I think it will definitely lead to more focus, if you will, on programming year round and making every month count. One of the reasons why cable is where it is, is because the programmers, whether it is HBO or ESPN or CNN, use and do original programming each and every month. There is no sweeps period. There's going to be some tinkering here, but I think that's what you're going to see, is the broadcast networks go into a year round schedule where every month is critical and every month is important.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, Simon, thank you very much.
SIMON APPLEBAUM: You're very welcome, Bob. It's been a pleasure.
BOB GARFIELD: Simon Applebaum is editor at large of Cable World magazine.