October 2007

Radio ratings - why is there such a problem?

Radio ratings - why is there such a problem?

Over recent weeks expressions of dissatisfaction with Arbitron's Portable People Meter (PPM) ratings has grown to the extent of four broadcasters writing to the company to ask for immediate action over what they perceive as sampling problems that have particularly affected the figures for black and Spanish language stations.
Had there been known inaccuracies but ones that applied generally, we suspect the broadcasters and advertisers would have lived with that but now big money is at stake for some broadcasters.

The system, however, has gained Media Rating Council (MRC) accreditation in Houston, where it first became currency, and Arbitron has been insisting that its system is up to scratch.

So, why the fuss? And more to the point are there any insuperable problems or just ones of finance?

What do ratings measure?

The first thing to be clear about is what ratings measure and to be clear that they area a quantitative rather than qualitative tool.

For qualitative information people can be asked detailed questions but this is time consuming and costly and not of particular interest to advertisers. In as far as it is of interest for services not funded directly by adverts - such as subscription services or public radio - the "market", to use the term in a broad sense gives some clues. For public radio, shows that attract devotion, even if not the largest audience, draw support in terms of pledges and for subscription services on satellite radio setting up an easy to use feedback system can give an idea.

So what we are talking about in the end is ears in the presence of audio, whether those easrs are paying attention, half-listening or indeed not listening at all.

Diaries will probably over-estimate to a degree those programmes where some of the diary keepers have a keen interest and under-estimate the programming they jump in and out of.

Electronic metering will correct this - but not flag the fact that some programmes are listened to and others are just on in the background - and we would expect them to increase the ratings for those kinds of shows that people often dip in and out of such as news and sports (except at times when there is a particular game on).

How can the ratings be made as accurate as possible?

If we are talking about diaries, the essentials are a well-designed system to elicit responses that are correct but do not prompt people to note specific programmes or stations allied with a suitably large number of diary keepers and proper demographic balance within that number.

There will always, however, be a reliance on human memory - it is not believable that all diary keepers conscientiously note all their listening all the time - and this will introduce distortions. That has been known all the time but there was no alternative so the distortions were accepted, other humans in advertising agencies made their own mental allowances for them, and business was done. But there was always a pressure to minimize the human element using technology: Hence the pressure for electronic metering.

If we are talking about electronic metering the first priority is technology that accurately picks up what audio is being listened to: Whether it does this through embedded codes or audio matching is irrelevant so long as the record is accurate. Once technology has been tried and tested this should never be an issue.

There are significant issues, however, in terms of the people who carry the devices: The human element may have been reduced but it hasn't been eliminated.

If the device carriers switch them off for any reason (or do not keep them charged up with the same effect) their information is degraded albeit we would expect the devices themselves to keep a record of when last "On" and when they went "Off" that with a suitable programme would allow automated allowance to be made as required for any such periods.

Then there is the question of numbers. If you can't get enough people to carry the devices, the results will again be degraded.

And finally there is the issue of demographic mix: This requires an analysis of the demographics or the market and matching to this the demographics of those who will carry the devices.

Demographic mix

Demographic mix, it seems to us is likely to be the main area where a problem can develop since some groups can be expected to be more willing to carry the devices than others and this will affect results much more than a general but evenly distributed problem in recruiting people to carry metering devices.

Some of the problems can presumably be overcome using incentives providing the cost of these is outweighed by the demographic benefits that accrue, not forgetting that if one group gets more incentives than another there may well be a knock-on dissatisfaction amongst the less rewarded groups that may affect their willingness to get involved.

Ultimately therefore it's a bottom line matter. To get accurate results means getting enough people with a suitable demographic make-up within the group recruited. Fewer people are likely to mean inaccuracies but it will cost more to increase the numbers.
As for stations or formats that come out better or worse with electronic metering, if the results can be shown to be accurate then it's hard lines because the advertisers want this. If they can be show to be inaccurate there is a problem for both the broadcasters and the ratings supplier because they're not much use to anybody and not worth paying for or having.

The way forward

If there is a monopoly then the ways forward are fairly limited -they boil down to not being rated or paying up in the last analysis and there is no competition to set the rate.

For that reason alone, Clear Channel's initiative in calling for competitive tenders was a sound move and we would suggest the broadcasters would have probably be in a better business position had they committed development money and some contracts to a competing system - maybe using both systems in a limited number of markets and bearing the costs of double ratings in one or two of them in the knowledge that the market would then give both ratings suppliers a reason to provide the best value service.

That, however, would seem to be ruled out by the decisions made by all the large broadcasters to go with Arbitron's PPM, unless of course some of those complaining are preparing to jump ship in some markets. If they aren't they can be as unhappy as they like but Arbitron has them by the genitals when it comes to squeezing.

We therefore think that the idea of supporting a second supplier in some markets - it already happens with the diary system with Eastlan competing with Arbitron in the US for small market ratings - is worth some very serious thought by both broadcasters and advertisers.

If a second supplier exists using different technology we would expect ratings costs to potentially increas a little in the short term but be kept down in the longer one.

What we would envisage would be a market-by-market competition for ratings - for network ratings the advertisers and broadcasters should jointly insist that they are purchasing local ratings that they can aggregate themselves if they wish to, thus allowing both suppliers to provide network figures that can then be combined for an overall picture if they so wish or just provide required local numbers.

In additon we would see it as very valuable if in a few markets contracts - not necessarily the same ones all the time: The secondary contracts could be for a limited period - are given to both, thus allowing analsyis of any weaknesses and subsequent improvments for all the other markets. Again this would be a matter of cost but it should certainly increase confidence in the system if both contractors are providing broadly the same results and enable weaknesses to be investigated where there is a significant difference.

What you think? Please E-mail your comments.


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