Broadcast Ratings and Ethics

By Goldberg, Melvin A. | Review of Business, Summer 1989 | Go to article overview

Broadcast Ratings and Ethics


Goldberg, Melvin A., Review of Business


Broadcast Ratings and Ethics

In industry, as in government, the desire for ethical behavior sometimes takes the form of self-regulation. Very often, such an effort is brought about through investigations or pressure from the news media. Sometimes it arises from complaints by competitors or customers. Examples are numerous. For example, investigations into Wall Street activities have shown illegal insider trading and stock manipulation. In the area of defense procurement, investigations have brought to light instances of bribery, kickbacks, and other unethical and illegal practices.

Usually, the investigations result in demands for rules and standards that would limit or prevent improper behavior. Sometimes, new laws or commissions result. Most of the time, however, the hope is that self-regulation would be more effective than new laws or agencies. In the case of broadcasting, the stimulus for self-regulation arose from Congressional hearings.

In 1963, the House Subcommittee on Communications of the Interstate and Foreign Commerce Committee, under the Chairmanship of Oren Harris, held hearings to investigate ratings and audience research. It was hypothesized that if program selections by stations were based on ratings, and ratings were either faulty or fraudulent, then the stations were not acting in the public interest.

As a result of these hearings, the importance of ratings was emphasized and their validity and credibility became a growing industry concern. To deter the government from entering the business, broadcast industry leaders, with the tacit approval of the Justice Department, set up the Broadcast Rating Council as a self-regulatory organization. In 1982, the name of the Council was changed to Electronic Media Rating Council (EMRC), to encompass all electronic media, such as radio, television, cable, etc. Membership includes various broadcast and cable groups and networks, with the American Association of Advertising Agencies and Association of National Advertisers as liaison members. Membership dues cover the salaries and cost of administration of the EMRC.

Establishing Standards

The job of the Rating Council remains the same today as it was in 1964, namely to maintain rating confidence and credibility. It is the belief of the Rating Council that adherence by the rating services to specific minimum standards is necessary to meet the basic objectives of valid, reliable and useful electronic media audience measurement research. Acceptance of these minimum standards is voluntary and is one of the conditions of accreditation by the EMRC.

These minimum standards are divided into two groups. One refers to Ethical and Operations Standards, which govern the quality and integrity of the entire process by which ratings are produced. And, since behavior may be determined by the information that customers have available, the Council also established Disclosure Standards which specify the detailed information about a rating service that must be made available to users, to the EMRC, and to its auditing agent. In other words, these minimum standards for ratings services are designed to assure users of ratings that the services that are accredited by the EMRC, not only say what they do but do what they say.

In effect, the Rating Council has established standards of "ethical behavior" for rating services-at least as defined by Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary: "behavior conforming to accepted professional standards of conduct."

In this instance, the minimum standards are basically professional standards of conduct established by the EMRC, and agreed to by the rating services in order to gain EMRC accreditation. For example, a rating service must submit complete information on its survey methodology, including sampling techniques, recruiting procedures, weighing, tabulations, coding and computer software as well as the end result -- ratings. …

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