Friday, October 17, 2008

Gored oxen

I am likely stating the obvious here. Those who resist change most vehemently are those who feel most threatened by it. Native Americans were perfectly happy with the status quo. The influx of pale people--modern conveniences, railroads, and evangelical religion notwithstanding--was not viewed with particular enthusiasm. They resisted violently. Ask General Custer.

I see a perfect example of such resistance to change by those most threatened by it when I look in my former field of broadcasting and the current controversy over how viewership and listenership are measured. It had to change. Previously used methodology is archaic and not very accurate at all. Billions of ad dollars are spent based on those estimates, and those decisions have been made primarily on the memories and honesty of diarykeepers. Busy, distracted people, facing a glut of media swirling all about them, are asked to write down what shows they watched or stations they listened to over a one-week period. I won't even try to tell you all the horror stories I have personally witnessed or all the things that can and do go wrong with this methodology.

Then, Nielsen (a company that used meter technology over 50 years ago but still measured the bulk of TV viewing by hastily scribbled diary entries and pencil) started extending the use of its set-top boxes in the homes of so-called "Nielsen families." There was great anguish and gnashing of teeth from some groups because the results from this much more accurate measuring stick came in better for some stations and shows and worse for others than they had with those diaries. Arbitron (who built a multi-million-dollar business on diaries and pencils) heard the clamor from advertisers and developed the Portable People Meter, which has been previously discussed on this blog, including my own limited personal involvement when I worked with Arbitron.

Wow! A device that impartially measured whatever its bearer was listening to. No recall. No guessing about call letters or dial position. No writing down the call letters of the station with the most billboards and bus panels, just because that was the only one the diarykeeper could remember. No having one teenager in a household fill out eight diaries for other family members who did not want to fool with such silliness.

But, just as with Nielsen's far more accurate methodology, those who felt the new, more reliable way of measuring actual media usage was hurting their particular segment of the business began yelling loud and long. Loud and long enough that the attorney general of the state of New York was asked to intervene and take legal action against Artibron's "illegal and misleading business practices." And the Federal Communications Commission was asked to intervene (I'm no lawyer, but I see now way there is any jurisdiction here!).

Yes, many stations that are programmed for African-Americans and Hispanics lost ratings with the PPM, just as happened when Nielsen meters became more widespread, replacing diaries. And lost ratings mean lost dollars from advertisers. Sometimes millions of lost dollars. I undersatnd the plight perfectly. I, too, owned a radio station that suffered from Arbitron's diary methodology.

(Could it have been that the diaries allowed some people to "vote" for "their" stations to whom they felt called to show loyalty by indicating more listening than was actually taking place? I'll save that argument for some other blog post.)

Well, NY AG Cuomo has filed suit, claiming Arbitron's methodology is biased and that the company has deliberately misled customers and advertisers. The FCC is deciding if they have authority to look into the syndicated audience estimates of a company that does not have to have FCC approval or license to do so. (That would be like the FCC investigating a television critic who pans certain shows.) Sure, Arbitron, whose whole business is based on publishing accurate, unbiased, third-party audience estimates, is going to put into the marketplace ratings information they know to be wrong! That is too ridiculous for words!

Look, no research that relies on statistically valid sampling or some type of system for collecting that data is going to be 100% accurate. But the PPM is by far the best way of measuring radio (and TV, too, if the nuts at Nielsen would realize it and re-enter the partnership with Arbitron...especially for measuring out-of-home viewing [never saw a Nielsen meter on my hotel TV sets] and video streaming).

Although it almost sounds like the argument that religion, railroads and "civilization" were much better for Native Americans than the lifestyle they had happily lived for centuries, I believe the changes in the industry are good for stations. Accuracy is a good thing for everybody, including those whose audiences may actually decline in the beginning. Accuracy means advertisers can trust the numbers they are seeing and will, in the long run, mean more ad dollars for radio, including those who feel like they are being slimed by Arbitron's new device. And with all the other challenges facing traditional terrestrial commercial radio these days, the industry needs all the credibility it can get, credibility that can only be enhanced by more accurate ways of estimating usage.

But then, I am an advertiser. My ox is not getting gored.

Don Keith

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