Thursday, September 29, 2016

It only took eighteen years

by Don Keith

In a previous life, your blogger worked with a company called Arbitron.  They were the guys that measured and syndicated radio listening estimates and pretty much had the market to themselves.  While I was there--and a member of the executive team--I had the opportunity to observe and discuss progress on a radical new way to determine radio listening.  They were developing a system in which every radio station would include a digital signature in their over-the-air audio which could not be heard by listeners but could be detected by a small device they were to call the Portable People Meter, or PPM.  The PPM would be worn or carried in a purse by "panel members" and would, without any input by the person carrying it, record what stations were actually being heard...or if there was any listening at all.  The person would drop the device into a charger sometime during the day and it would not only recharge the battery but would also dial up a telephone number and dump all the day's data into the Arbitron computers.

Considering that all of Arbitron's measurement of radio listening audience was then being done by providing volunteers with little paper diaries that they were to complete and mail back in to show what stations they listened to, I felt this new technology would result in much more accurate and complete data.  See, as a former radio station personality, manager, programmer and owner, I knew the archaic diary methodology was rife with what statisticians like to call "artifacts," quirks that made the data less accurate.  Plus, it was just downright expensive and it was also getting more and more difficult to recruit volunteers--especially in certain age and ethnic groups--willing to keep a written diary of their actual listening for a whole week.

Yes, there would be problems with the PPM, too.  We knew that.  Major among them was the cost of developing the devices, the framework necessary to upload data to our computers, and replacing lost or broken devices...once we found out they were no longer working.  And, of course, the considerable cost of perfecting the technology in the first place.  To help pay for it, we anticipated the assistance of other potential partners, chief among them being Nielsen, our equivalent on the TV viewing audience measurement side.

We saw the PPM as a superior way of gathering passive, single-source, multimedia data.  The digital signal could be employed on any medium that made a noise.  That included both radio and TV and in all their variations -- internet streaming, out-of-home, satellite (like XM), and much more -- and would give invaluable data on media usage habits since the same person would measure all media at the same time, not just through a paper diary, a set-top TV box, or by answering a random telephone call during dinner.  We would not only know where they went when they dialed off their favorite station, but if they went to TV or to satellite.  Of if they simply consumed no media at all, which is also valuable to know.

Nielsen was agreeable.  They realized the potential to their business, too.

Sometime later, though, and after I had left Arbitron (believe me, there is no connection), Nielsen apparently cooled on the PPM and stopped financial support.  I have no idea why.

Then, a few years ago, Nielsen bought Arbitron.  Few speculated it had anything to do with PPM.  Most felt that they just saw a new potential market they could capture in one fell swoop...or by writing one big check, anyway.

Now, almost eighteen years after we came up with the idea, I see the headline in today's INSIDE RADIO:

Nielsen To Use PPM To Measure Local TV Viewing.
Nielsen will use the Portable People Meter to measure local TV viewing in 44 markets where the meter is currently used to track local radio audiences, the company announced Thursday. Deploying the PPM for double duty will enable the measurement giant to double local TV sample sizes and introduce out-of-home TV measurement in the 44 markets.  
More details at

Okay, some of the PPM problems we foresaw remain.  A few we never anticipated have cropped up.  But potentially, the technology can provide the same passive, single-source, multimedia consumption, and provide the reasonably accurate data we thought it might.  It appears Nielsen finally decided the same thing.

Look, it is not just radio and TV stations that need reliable listening and viewing estimates.  It is advertisers, too, who spend billions and need to be sure it is going to the stations and programming content that can actually help them sell stuff.

But it is also a good thing for listeners and viewers.  Unless programmers know what people are listening to or watching, and where they go when they leave their station or channel, they won't be nearly as responsive to public demand as they could be.

Maybe the PPM is not the absolute best.  There are others working on some exciting technology but it hasn't happened yet.  And it's not like stations and advertisers can go to the other TV or radio ratings company.  Right now, it is almost entirely Nielsen.

And it appears that big hulk of a monopoly has finally awakened and realized what they have with the PPM.

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