FCC authority over PPM in dispute


Amazingly few filings were submitted to the FCC in its docket proceeding over whether it should investigate claims that Arbitron’s Portble People Meter (PPM) ratings system undercounts minority listening.

In addition to the three comments we previously reported, only four more were filed with the FCC by Thursday’s deadline. Only two actually addressed the first issue that has to be decided – whether such an investigation can even take place. Groups backing such a probe say the FCC does have such authority, but Arbitron insists that it does not.

Although it filed comments in the proceeding, Arbitron was careful to add a footnote that its filing “is not an admission of any jurisdiction or authority on the part of the Commission over Arbitron, its business activities, or its contractual and other arrangements. Arbitron expressly objects to any exercise of Commission jurisdiction over it, and reserves all rights in that regard.” In other words, if you go ahead with this we reserve the right to sue you.

Arbitron’s filing claims that even the groups which had filed the petition seeking an investigation of PPM acknowledge that the FCC has no authority to order Arbitron to change anything about PPM. It accuses them of trying to use the FCC for a “government-enforced fishing expedition” to help them find ways to attack PPM.

“The Commission has no authority to make determinations of ‘reliability’ of ratings methodologies, even if the Commission had any experience or expertise in that area (which it does not). Congress has explicitly left accreditation of ratings methods to a private, industry-formed organization, and not to the Commission,” Arbitron said. The ratings company has repeatedly insisted that the Media Rating Council is the only proper forum for judging PPM.

The PPM Coalition, which petitioned the FCC for an emergency probe of PPM, reiterated its claim that Section 403 of the Communications Act gives the Commission broad authority to investigate anything where the information obtained would be necessary or helpful in determining its policies. “If, as asserted by the [PPM Coalition], implementation of Arbitron’s flawed methodology will gravely impact broadcast diversity and the diversity of media voices within the US radio market, the Commission must investigate these claims because they strike at the very heart of the Commission’s policies on diversity of media ownership,” the filing stated. The Coalition noted that the FCC relies on Arbitron data in its ownership rules and “therefore it has a vital interest in ensuring that Arbitron ratings data is accurate, fair and reliable.”

The PPM Coalition consists of the National Association of Black Owned Broadcasters, the Spanish Radio Association, the Association of Hispanic Advertising Agencies, and five radio group owners: Border Media, Entravision, Univision, SBS and Inner City.

Having unanimously passed a resolution supporting the call for an FCC investigation of PPM, the New York City Council filed its formal resolution and included a cover letter stating that the Council “stands firm in urging the FCC to investigate the possible deficiencies in the PPM methodology.” New York is one of the markets due to have PPM become ratings currency on October 8th.

Comments were also filed jointly by the Hispanic Technology and Telecommunications Partnership, League of United Latin American Citizens, Media Access Project and the Office of Communication of the United Church of Christ. “Arbitron’s flawed PPM methodology would likely wipe out half of the nation’s minority broadcasters by failing to capture minority radio listeners’ unparalleled loyalty to stations serving their needs – a key factor in diary measurements for which panelists emphasize stations they recall and enjoy, and de-emphasize stations for which their listening and attention is only ephemeral or fleeting,” the joint comment argued.

For its part, Arbitron told the Commission that in markets where PPM is in use, a number of minority-owned and minority-oriented stations have retained the rankings they had under diaries, or even improved on them. “Even if the Commission had authority in this area, the Petition relies on falsely-premised assertions and ill-reasoned conclusions about PPM, the data produced by the PPM methodology, and the effect of such data upon stations and markets,” the ratings company said.

RBR/TVBR observation: If you are in one of the eight markets due to have PPM become ratings currency on October 8th, you had best plan on that happening. Even with this FCC docket proceeding on a fast track, the next round of reply comments aren’t due until October 6th. Only then can the Commission move forward on taking any action. And should it decide that it does have the authority to open an investigation, you can bet that the next stop will be a courthouse.