September 2003

Audience meters are on the way soon.

Audience meters are on the way soon.

Two years ago in considering radio rating (RNW Comment July 2001) we said, "In future, we rather suspect the diary system will wither away in favour of the more automated and more easily processed information from meters."
That future we suspect is not now far away so we felt it was time to revisit the issue as competing systems based on Arbitron's Portable People Meter (PPM) and the RadioControl meter system have already gone into use in various countries round the world.

What timescale? To what degree?

The obvious first question is how soon will metering systems predominate over diaries and whether they will replace them completely or only to a degree with a limited amount of dual system operation, possibly as a crosscheck.

We tend to think that diaries will be all but dead in the major markets within five years because of a combination of the problems diary systems already face in some areas with response rates, because of the economics and because of the perceived efficiency of automated systems amongst many people - well, except when they involve voting machines that punch chads out, or not, as the case may be.

We also tend to think that once metering has made sufficient inroads, diaries will only be retained to a minimal degree if at all and that logically, once adequate definitions have been arrived at of what meters can measure and agreement reached as to what is to be demanded of them, meters will prove a more economically efficient method of generating statistics.

What should we ask for?

It then follows that there needs to be clear thinking about what a meter can do and those areas where the human input that goes into a diary system produces information that the meters cannot. There then has to be some agreement as to how important this information is and whether it needs to be gathered.

If it does, the next question is whether it would be better to generate this information by different means such as one-off market research or by retaining a smaller number of diary-keepers for specific purposes, possibly say for some qualitative feedback.
So what can a meter system provide? It can certainly provide information about the audio being broadcast at whatever location it is positioned or taken to. This can either come from matching the audio received with that known to have been broadcast (the basis of the RadioControl meter) or though detecting codes embedded in the broadcast audio (the basis for Arbitron's Portable People Meter system and, also, through some form of watermarking for various systems being developed to track copyrighted material).

Even then, however, for some modes of listening the meter is of no use; Sony saw to that with the Walkman and subsequent developments of personal audio devices listened to through headphones. Diaries would presumably pick up such listeners so it would be reasonable to ask how large a percentage of listening takes place using such devices before just moving to meters.Equally meters will pick up listening for a few seconds, something that diary systems neglect. How important is this?

What we would suggest as the ideal - never to be realised, of course - would be a way to measure and then analyse all listening in terms of what actually was being listened to, what was there but secondary (the noise in a bar, for example, can include radio or TV yet be mainly ignored) and also some way of grading the attention actually being paid to the programming and the degree to which it is being appreciated (the difference say between pop merely as a background and the impact of a pop classic that is really listened to.)
Being practical however, what will be paid for in most of the world on a regular basis (i.e. ratings as opposed to one-off market research) is related to commerce: the business is how many ears are being delivered to the advertiser trying to sell things with an additional degree of interest as to what demographic they are in so as to increase the likelihood of the goods being sold being purchased by the audience of a station.

Our conclusions.

In the end, it seems to us meters are not a perfect answer but they can provide most of the basic information needed in a wide range of circumstances with comparatively little further tweaking. Beyond this more limited one-off or sample surveys using diaries and other market research techniques can probably come up with most, if not all, the information now being collated.

In addition they eliminate some of the weaknesses of the human element and would probably be significantly cheaper We can see the industry calling for more development for a year or two but have no doubt that after that the days of the meter will be upon us.

What does remain to be determined is the degree of sophistication that will be required of them and we do have some concerns there about the pressures that will be put upon rating organisations by commercial interests pushing to protect their patch. We have already in our view seen some of this in the manner in which Kelvin MacKenzie, chief executive of The Wireless Group, had pushed the introduction of the RadioControl meter system (being used by GfK Media for its ratings and concurrent attacks on RAJAR, the official ratings organisation.

The latter has not turned down meters but is evaluating them carefully; it's approach seems sensible and that of MacKenzie self-serving (He gets a significant boost from the new figures.) As always in the end it won't be a case of the figures lying but there may yet be pressures that will make them mislead without proper attention to what should be measured and what actually is being.

What you think? Please E-mail your comments.

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