The Media Rating Council just announced that it has withdrawn its accreditation for Nielsen’s diary-based system of measuring television audiences, apprently due to shortcomings in how Nielsen recruits members of its local samples. This is the method of measuring television audiences that continues to serve 154 of the 210 television markets in the U.S. The remainder of the 210 television markets (generally, the larger ones) are served by set-top meters.In some ways, it’s kind of surprising that 154 television markets in the U.S. are still measured using something as antiquated and flawed as paper diaries, but as I mentioned in my previous post, audience measurement systems are only as advanced as the size of the market being measured can support.
But what I want to emphasize here is the extent to which this story — which sounds important — is really a non-story. This is because the Media Rating Council has no meaningful authority in the audience marketplace. MRC accreditation — or lack thereof — has no impact on whether a measurment firm can operate a measurement system in the market. So the MRC’s decision doesn’t mean a whole lot in the grand scheme of things. As I discuss in a fair bit of detail in Audience Evolution, the business of audience measurement is basically unregulated, despite the fact that one can make a compelling case that many sectors of the audience measurement industry (for example television and radio audience measurement) are essentially monopolies.
The MRC is an industry self-regulatory body made up of representatives from the media and advertising industries that has no authority to prevent the launch of new audience measurement services that have not met its accreditation standards; nor does it have the authority to prevent the operation of audience measurement services that have had their accreditation revoked.
The somewhat limited role of the MRC has been brought into focus a number of times in recent years. Arbitron rolled out its Portable People Meter service for radio audiences in a number of local markets without receiving MRC accreditation. Nielsen did the same thing with its Local People Meter service for measuring local TV audiences.
Perhaps it’s not surprising, given this situation, that over the past few years a number of state attorneys general have jumped into the fray out of concerns about whether new audience measurement services are effectively representing the diversity of the audiences consuming media. And Congress and the FCC have in recent years pondered taking a more aggressive regulatory stance, but nothing has materialized on these fronts.
As the process of audience measurement increasingly intersects with social policy concerns such as diversity and (especially) privacy, one can’t help but wonder whether a more potent regulatory apparatus of some sort is inevitable, and perhaps advisable.