World: Stuart Elliott in America

It's a high-stakes tale of business, big-city politics, money and power, with a multicultural cast, some surprising plot twists and a cliffhanger ending, a yarn so dramatic and compelling, it ought to be on TV. There's just one thing keeping it from being on TV - it's about TV. The story is the effort by the US arm of Nielsen Media Research to make fundamental changes to how it gathers and reports ratings from New York, the number-one US market. Last week, less than 48 hours before a long-planned introduction of a new way to measure local data there, Nielsen blinked, delaying the changes from 8 April to 3 June.

The postponement came in response to the persistent and sophisticated entreaties of an ad hoc association of elected officials, activists, civil rights organisations and a pressure group that calls itself the Don't Count Us Out Coalition. Their efforts, which included a media blitz in local newspapers, a website and news conferences, were supported by Lachlan Murdoch, wearing his hat as the head of the News Corporation division that owns a batch of American TV stations, belonging to both the Fox and UPN broadcast networks.

News Corporation is worried that the proposed changes would result in much lower ratings for shows watched by black, Spanish-speaking and younger viewers, who are responsible for a large part of the audience for Fox and UPN. That concern, which goes to the heart of the ability of those shows to generate ad revenue, stems from results of a test this winter of the new ratings system that produced double-digit declines in viewership for several such series.

Despite explanations from Nielsen that its switch would result in the inclusion of more, not fewer, black and Latino households in New York, the opposition to the changeover mounted. Quickly joining Murdoch were the members of the rainbow coalition, coming from places such as the New York City Council, the US Congress, the NAACP, the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund, the National Minority Business Council and the National Association of Hispanic Publications.

While the identities of some of the protesters raised eyebrows - the Harlem Arts Alliance? The Concerned Citizens of Queens? The Puerto Rican Travelling Theater? - there's no doubt the result they achieved was an unprecedented show of force to which Nielsen reluctantly, but publicly, yielded. So instead of rolling out in New York the "local people meters" - gadgets like the ones Nielsen uses to compile national TV ratings - the company is sticking with (or stuck with) the current system of low-tech set-up boxes and paper diaries.

Yes, paper diaries, in which members of the households chosen by Nielsen to be part of the ratings sample must record by hand their viewing habits.

In other words, the results of whose stations win or lose when the biggest US city watches TV are being entrusted to a system that dates to 1950, a year before America started loving Lucy.

During the next two months, Nielsen executives say, they'll redouble their efforts to explain why they want to introduce the local people meters, emphasising data showing that the percentages of black and Hispanic households to be surveyed actually will exceed the averages for the overall New York population.

Will that calm, even charm, the critics? As they say on TV, stay tuned.

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