Black broadcasters told the FCC that Arbitron’s Portable People Meter (PPM) is deeply flawed and is causing serious damage to their business. However, as comments came due on the Commission’s PPM Notice of Inquiry, the National Association of Black Owned Broadcasters (NABOB) backed away from any claim that the FCC has authority to regulate Arbitron – instead urging persuasion. Meanwhile, Emmis Communications warned the FCC against getting involved in an area where it lacks expertise.
Noting Arbitron’s own comments and its settlement with three state attorneys general, Stevie Wonder’s Taxi Productions, licensee of KJLH-FM Los Angeles, said there can be little doubt that PPM is flawed. “The harm from these flaws is real, not theoretical,” said the comments filed by attorney Peter Tannenwald. The filing said KJLH’s ratings had fallen by almost two-thirds after PPM was introduced in LA. “The sudden and precipitous drop cannot be an accurate reflection of true audience levels, but it has threatened the survival of KJLH as a business enterprise,” the FCC was told.
KJLH deferred to NABOB’s filing on whether the FCC has authority to regulate Arbitron. If it does not, though, KJLH urged the Commission to stop relying on Arbitron data for any purpose and bar the transmission of PPM encoding until remedial steps have been taken to address problems with PPM. It did not, however, offer any technical justification for what would be an engineering action.
ICBC Broadcast Holdings (Inner City) also noted the ratings declines its stations have suffered since PPM was implemented in two markets. “Either the audiences in New York and San Francisco dramatically changed their listening tastes, by the tens of thousands at exactly the time that Arbitron deployed PPM or the PPM ratings mechanism misfired substantially as compared to the Arbitron diary system.” The minority-owned company said it had suffered “devastating losses of revenue” following the change from diaries to PPM.
“Arbitron has argued that the FCC has no legal authority over it. While ICBC believes that Arbitron is incorrect, there can be no doubt the Commission has ample authority over radio broadcasters. If the harms caused by PPM continue, the Commission could order radio broadcasters to cease participation in the PPM system, cease broadcasting the identification code necessary to the PPM technology, in order to support the public interest in curbing harmful monopoly practices and promoting a diverse, financially sound and independent radio industry. Such an action would be a last resort in the event that Arbitron refuses to cooperate with the FCC,” the filing stated. It did not suggest any legal precedent for the Commission to take such actions.
NABOB, which is part of the PPM Coalition which asked the FCC to investigate PPM, seems to have backed away from the Coalition’s claim that the FCC has broad authority under Section 403 of the Communications Act which would allow it to investigate PPM, although the PPM Coalition had never directly claimed that the FCC could impose regulations on Arbitron. Now, in its filing by Executive Director/General Counsel Jim Winston and Lois Wright, Counsel to the board of directors, “NABOB requests that the Commission exercise its statutory authority over the broadcast industry to obtain a voluntary commitment from Arbitron” to make improvements to PPM. Among the improvements requested are larger sample sizes, address-based recruiting of panelists and a halt to rolling out PPM in additional markets until it has obtained Media Rating Council (MRC) accreditation in the new markets to be rolled out.
If Arbitron won’t voluntarily agree to those terms, NABOB wants the FCC to stop using Arbitron data for any purpose. That, coincidentally, would produce exactly the result that ARSO Radio has been seeking in its long battle to get the FCC to use the market definitions of the US Government’s Office of Management & Budget instead of Arbitron metros for local market definitions in Puerto Rico. NABOB also suggests seeking public comments on whether to ban PPM encoding, again without offering any engineering justification.
One commenter actually addressed the question directly of claiming that the FCC does, indeed, have authority to regulate Arbitron – and Nielsen or any other ratings company for that matter. Philip Napoli, Director of the Donald McGannon Communication Research Center at Fordham University cited diversity of ownership, competition, privacy and “the transparency and integrity of the policymaking process” as justifications for the FCC to intervene. “The bottom line is that public policy should be made with publicly available data, and when data that are as central to communications policymaking and policy analysis as the data provided by audience measurement firms such as Nielsen and Arbitron are subject to licensing provision that are so restrictive as to undermine the integrity and transparency of the policymaking process, then some sort of regulatory intervention is necessary,” Napoli argued.
The New Jersey Broadcasters Association (NJBA) also pleaded the case for government oversight, suggesting that the FCC submit the results of its NOI to Congress for possible legislative action. The filing by NJBA President/CEO Paul Rotella argued that “there is no logical correlation between population size and PPM meter placement in New jersey radio markets. Furthermore, there is a wide disparity between sample size and PPM meer presence between adjacent New Jersey counties.” He noted that New Jersey now has the odd situation of embedded markets with both PPM counties and diary counties. “To be sure, the sponsors will always fixate on the lower number,” he noted.
Coming to the aid of Arbitron was Emmis Communications, which is not minority owned but has minority-oriented stations in New York and Los Angeles. “Emmis strongly believes that although the Arbitron PPM system can and should be improved, implementation of the system without delay is vital to the radio industry as it competes in the age of digital media. Further, Emmis respectfully submits that the Commission lacks authority to regulate PPM, and that in any case it would be unwise for the agency to interpose itself in an area where it lacks specific expertise, particularly since an experienced body is already overseeing rollout of the system,” wrote Emmis attorney John Fiorini.
Emmis concedes that its stations have done less well under PPM than under diary measurement. Its former #1 and #2 stations 18-34 in New York targeting African American listeners and #1 18-34 in Los Angeles targeting Hispanic listeners have taken hits from PPM. “Although we believe that sampling of minority listeners can and should be improved, we also believe that in general the PPM ratings are a reasonably accurate reflection of radio listening behavior, and that the ‘paper diary’ system has often overstate actual listening,” Emmis said. But it noted that major advertisers have grown resistant to paying based on diary ratings.
RBR/TVBR observation: With all due respect to ICBC attorneys Lois Wright, Charles Naftalin and Leighton Brown II, the FCC is not “the only expert agency available with national reach.” In fact, the FCC has no expertise whatsoever in the area of broadcast ratings. It should now stand down and leave this issue to the Media Rating Council, which is already hard at work, and potential oversight by the US Congress, which clearly has authority to investigate if it so chooses.
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