Monday, May 18, 2009

A line has been crossed...

Story in today's media-industry trade publications:

Against Arbitron's wishes, the FCC has opened a formal inquiry into the impact of the Portable People Meter's impact on minority broadcasters. While commending Arbitron for switching to electronic ratings, acting chair Michael Copps says the FCC has a "strong interest" in promoting ownership diversity.

For those who don't know, the Portable People Meter is a device that can be worn or carried by people as they participate in a "panel"--theoretically a statistically representative panel--recruited by Arbitron. The device can hear tones encoded in radio, TV, Internet streams, satellite and anything else that makes a noise, so people's true listening/viewing can be much more accurately measured than it ever has been by previous methods.

The PPM is showing different listening habits than the old way did. The "old way" was asking people to keep a written diary of their listening for a week. Nielsen, who built their company on A.C. Nielsen's meter technology, still gathers most of its TV audience data by diary. So does Arbitron.

More accurate ratings means ratings will probably show different results than the old methodology did. So far, that has hurt stations who program to African Americans and Latinos more than anyone else. Fact: the PPM shows that not as many people listen for as long a time to those stations as the diary did.

But a line has now been crossed when the federal agency that is charged with regulating the airwaves can "investigate" a publisher of syndicated ratings estimates. For you hams, that would be the equivalent of the FCC investigating how well Simpson measures current and voltage. Or the FTC investigating to see what is wrong with how they determine the average selling price of cars in a particular zip code.

I'm all for a level playing field, and for minority ownership of media to thrive. But I think:

-- The best way for any medium to do well is to have accurate audience or readership or page-visitor estimates for advertisers to evaluate.

-- The best way to get higher ratings is for a station to consider the results of those more accurate ratings and adjust programming to attract a more sellable audience...not necessarily the biggest...the most SELLABLE.

-- The worst way to inspire advertiser confidence in any ratings information is to threaten to call in the feds or sue the companies who produce those data, sending a loud message that the ratings are junk.

-- The FCC has no more business--legally or logically--investigating Arbitron than Congress does looking into steroid use in baseball or whether or not there should be a national college football playoff.

-- Even if the FCC decreed that Arbitron's data are a scourge on hip-hop and salsa stations, that they are crap and totally whack, that they are putting minority-owned radio stations out of business left and right, what could they do about it? Please, somebody, show me where they have jurisdiction here?

-- The marketplace will take care of Arbitron if they don't do a good job of measuring the listenership of any ethnic or demo group. They are no longer a monopoly. If they do a bad job, competitors who do a better job can prosper. Just like with radio and TV stations.

That's what I believe. How about you?

Don Keith


goody said...

When I saw the inquiry in the FCC Daily Digest, I was wondering the same thing as well. The FCC has no business sticking their nose into this. I can see where it's a political hot potato, however.

I think minority ownership was doomed when the mega-corporations started snatching up stations and turned them into corporate drones.

Don Keith N4KC said...

Goody, I think you are correct on both points. I know of no serious minority-owned groups anywhere except large markets where there were enough signals left over after CC, Citadel, and Cumulus bought the full complement. Even then, some minority owners had to settle for weaker suburban signals.

I've found a new analogy for this move by the FCC. A ham radio friend of mine has just published a book containing pictures of vintage communication gear and has short descriptions of each. Now, if the FCC opened an inquiry into the content of that book because some people felt it didn't accurately describe a particular manufacturer's products, then that would be exactly the same thing as this debacle.

Unless there is some proof that Arbitron is deliberately discriminating against any group on racial-, religious-, or age-based criteria with an intent to hurt their business, then I see no governmental role here...and especially not the Federal Communications Commission.

Thanks for the post.