What should we rate?
In looking at broadcast ratings, the
general approach has been to concentrate on the quantitative
and tinge it with a little qualitative, mainly in forms of the "audience
In other words, never mind the product as such! Just ask how many
people are listening and how much spending power they have (or influence
in the case of a state broadcaster where this is the equivalence,
broadly speaking, of spending power to an advertiser).
The question we'd like to pose is whether the brief should be wider
and, if so, is there any chance of making it so.
Certainly the measuring of numbers alone can arguably be made much
more sophisticated using modern technology such as the metering devices
developed by Arbitron with its portable people meter (RNW
June 5) and its rival from the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation
(RNW May 29).
Both these devices can increase the accuracy of monitoring which "audio
signal" is being listened to and potentially offer significant savings
in terms of processing the "raw data" into useful forms.
They don't seem to offer much in the terms of enhancing the qualitative,
although the Swiss version will have a voice recording option that
could be of use here.
Ironically, the old "diary" system has many advantages
in terms of "qualitative" monitoring.
It is tried and trusted and well researched and, to quote Arbitron,
"While the growing public resistance to surveys makes it difficult
to ask too many questions during a phone inter-view, the qualitative
questions in the diary can be answered by participants at any time
during the survey week and are completed by nearly all diary keepers."
"In addition to qualitative information, the
diary gives participants the opportunity to include comments about
their radio listening, which provides stations with invaluable information
on listener perceptions."
The value placed on this information is, however, a somewhat moot
point. If a station is rated highly, it is probably given little
weight except in as far as it confirms that station's preconceptions
If, on the other hand, the station has fared badly in ratings terms,
it may get more study although this is probably mainly as a rough
guide as where to pursue further research. And far too often research
favours the familiar too much and for far too long; innovation always
has barriers to break down and audiences take time to build.
What for the future?
In future, we rather suspect the diary system
will wither away in favour of the more automated and more easily
processed information from meters.
Such systems will certainly give a more accurate snapshot of what
is actually listened to and with suitable add-ons could still
yield almost as much qualitative information as a diary system.
Indeed there's no reason why, for specific needs, the latter should
not remain available as an add-on.
We have no doubt that the pressure from the finance side will
favour "numbers" which are perceived to be more accurate and much
experience would lead us to conclude that programme departments
will have a difficult task in getting finance for anything more
than the aforesaid numbers.
The problem for us is that we see over reliance on "numbers",
like over reliance on "focus groups" as often likely to hinder
creative moves forward even if it enables "better targeting."
But, as we do seem to be in a world where technology is enabling
people to choose more what they get, we expect that such techniques
will tend to increase current trends towards concentration in
a small number of safe areas.
Only in dreams can we see much effort being devoted to obtaining
qualitative information if the quantitative is mostly what is
wanted in a harsh commercial world and can be made cheaper to
produce and more accurate in its measurement.
The diary is dying: Long live the meter. But to
paraphrase a comment made to Henry Ford by the autoworkers union,
the meters won't buy many advertised products! The humans still
come into the equation and ultimately they're the most important
part, whatever the convenience of the number crunchers.
Any views? Please comment
on the above. For that matter, if you can put the time aside, we'd
like your "Guest comment" pages this year to stimulate more
feedback and dialogue.