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Media scholars have long argued that the Nielsen ratings, the standard measurement in the television industry for viewership, do not so much monitor audiences as construct them. None of the technologies or techniques which Nielsen has developed would meet rigorous social science standards for data collection. They always have built in biases which overcount groups valued by advertisers and undercount groups who are not seen as demographically desirable. Each time the ratings technology changes, there are abrupt adjustments in network programming to reflect where the new center of gravity is – from rural to urban, from older to younger viewers. That is why the attempt to introduce people meters, electronic devices which Nielsen claims are more accurate for monitoring what viewers actually watch, has become such a politically charged issue.

The New York Times recently ran a story describing the behind the scenes struggles over ratings technologies, a struggle which has aligned Rupert Murdoch and Fox, key Clinton advisors, Univision (the Spanish language cable network), and a range of civil rights groups against Nielsen. Tests of people meters in New York City found steep declines in ratings for series on UPN that are favored by black viewers, like “One on One” and “The Parkers.” Nielsen argues that these program’s viewership was overcounted by earlier techniques which involved self-reporting through diaries and their critics argue that they are being “undercounted” under the new technology. Fox is involved because as a fringe network, they had embraced minority-targeted programming as a way to build on underserved market shares.

All of this comes about at a time when there is almost no overlap in the lists of highest rated shows among African-Americans and White Americans, when the networks have made a renewed effort to expand minority presence in network programing, and when some series were showing signs of crossover appeal. Critics worry that a shift in the counting system now may discourage networks from continuing to pursue minority content.

Neilsen’s critics have launched a series of advertisements implicitly comparing this undercounting to what happened in Florida in 2000. “If Nielsen is the ballot box for viewers, then shouldn’t every vote count?” asked one advertisement. Part of what makes this such a hot issue is that Neilsen maintains more or less a monopoly on data about American television viewing and thus exerts a tremendous authority over programming decisions.

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