Building A PPM Panel: How Nielsen Does It


Have you ever wondered how radio, television and other media outlets decide what shows to broadcast or to cancel? 

That’s the opening pitch in a letter randomly received last week at a Delray Beach, Fla., household from Nielsen. This household has been selected to participate “along with a few other households in your area” in an “important research study.”

This is how the nation’s dominant source of media consumption data and ratings seeks out its PPM panelists. There’s also a thank you for considering Nielsen’s request: Two $1 bills.

The letter, addressed to “Delray Beach Area Household,” requests that an adult take “just a few minutes” to complete a short survey, which appears on back of the double-sided letter. Nielsen even provides a self-addressed stamped envelope and promises that it will send $5 in cash once the completed survey is received.

“Because we are a professional research company,” Nielsen Chief Research Officer Mainak Mazumdar writes, “you can be assured we will never try to sell you anything and we respect your privacy.”

What does Nielsen ask in this first query to a random household?

First, Nielsen wants to know if the person who has received the letter has access to the internet. Nielsen does not elaborate on the question, meaning that one could theoretically have access only via a mobile device or, in limited instances, at a place of work.

The recipient is also asked if they have a cellphone and if they have a landline in the home.

The Delray Beach household, like many, responded “no,” thus skipping a question that asks, “When at home, how frequently does anyone answer the landline phone in your home?”

Then comes the standard question about employment, if any, at a radio, TV or cable company among anyone in the household, along with a question if the recipient is of Hispanic heritage. There’s also a question about race, and the number of people living in the household, and by age group.

That’s it — along with a reminder that asks that the screener be returned before August 2.

From there, it’s up to the recipient to keep the $2 and toss the screener in the recycle bin, or respond and participate — with no real initial understanding of what’s to come.

Delray Beach is within the West Palm Beach-Boca Raton-Fort Pierce, Fla., DMA, ranked No. 37 among television markets. For Nielsen Audio, the city is within Market No. 48; Fort Pierce and the Treasure Coast are measured separately.

What’s at stake? Nielsen’s pitch, and its ultimate success, will directly impact Alpha Media, iHeartMedia, Way Media and Vic Canales, who recently acquired the former JVC Media properties in West Palm Beach. On the TV side, the placement of a PPM with this household will also greatly impact and influence the data of local stations owned by Hearst Television, The E.W. Scripps Co. and Sinclair Broadcast Group. Raycom Media-owned WFLX-29 is presently operated by Scripps via a shared services agreement; it is not known if Gray Television will assume direct control of WFLX following its merger with Raycom and the end of that arrangement’s current term.


The direct mail recruitment letter is a different tactic from how Arbitron once sought its diarykeepers nearly 20 years ago.

As noted in the July 9, 1999 edition of Radio & Records, the company absorbed by Nielsen now branded as Nielsen Audio sought Los Angeles radio ratings participants through cold calls to random households.

But, what Arbitron accomplished in the call gave the potential diarykeeper a full picture of what they’d be asked to do: The Arbitron representative described the job of the diarykeeper and then asked a few questions about the potential participant. Covering the radio industry wasn’t the same as working for a radio station, so Arbitron sent the diary — along with a $1 bill and thank you letter from Arbitron’s then-President, Steve Morris.

Four days later, a colorful package similar in size to a box of checks arrived by U.S. Mail. Included was a diary, and instructions for how to log all of the listening one did across an entire week. This wildly erratic activity was documented by R&R: Over the course of seven days stations ranging from Alternative to Jazz to Classical to Rock, with average tune-in of 20 minutes, were meticulously written into the diary. In an era when streaming audio was confined to a desktop computer, “preferring radio stations that don’t even serve the
city I live in” was a concern.

Nineteen years later, the diaries are gone, replaced years ago in L.A. and in West Palm Beach by the Portable People Meter (PPM).

As a result, the entire nature of radio industry ratings has changed. One is asked to carry around a meter, and ensure that it is “active” — even if they spend hours of time at a desk. There is no downloadable App that one can use on a smartphone, requiring a second device. Then, there are those who may fear that it is a monitoring device, namely undocumented immigrants who may consume mostly foreign-language programming.

Also different are the radio ratings themselves. In the diary system, radio broadcasting companies got a look at what stations individuals in their market listened to. With PPM, panelists are measured for all of the stations they are exposed to. As such, if the Delray Beach resident were to dine at a taquería where WLLY-FM 99.5 “La Ley” was being played by the kitchen staff at a loud enough volume where the PPM would detect the signal, any exposure to “La Ley” of a considerable duration would be attributed to this resident.

Nielsen and Arbitron have explained throughout the years that this activity would not highly impact local radio ratings, and provides a fuller picture of what radio stations are being consumed across an entire metropolitan area.

Further, rich data and further insights could show that the resident dines at the taquería, explaining the blip in exposure to “La Ley,” thus creating a marketing opportunity for the restaurant to approach the PPM participant through some direct-to-consumer advertising effort.

Editor’s Note: Six days after the publication of this article, Nielsen requested the removal of images showing the front and back of a Nielsen screener questionnaire. While we disagree with the request, as the questionnaire was sent to a random household, we have respected their request. It was also requested that RBR+TVBR emphasize that the screener is not used in any way for audience estimates. 

RBR+TVBR OBSERVATION: Recently we have taken to Twitter to post video to demonstrate the continued problem of overmodulation of Voltair at radio stations in our home market of West Palm Beach. The greatest offender of these “artifacts” distorting the signal is Alpha Media’s WRMF-FM 97.9. This issue has persisted for nearly two years across several markets, including Miami (iHeartMedia’s WBGG-FM 105.9, WHYI-FM 100.7 and WMIA-FM 93.9 have had various issues over the last year) and Portland, Ore. Radio station management we have spoken to puts the blame on Nielsen Audio and its PPM-based detection system “not properly picking up spoken word or soft audio,” such as the intro to “Budapest” by George Ezra. Nielsen insists the problem lies with the radio stations using something that is not needed. Voltair, meanwhile, has capitalized on selling radio companies a product they need to protect their assets and their revenue — even if the result is that “crystal clear HD Radio” signal sounding as clear as that red tide-ravaged harbor over in Cape Coral full of dead fish and a stench that’s worse that the latest single from Bebe Rexha. Yes, you’re No. 1 — but you won’t continue to be if your audio sounds like it is being funneled through all of that dead fish in the Calossahatchee River. Get your engineers on the case now. Your just one button-push away from less PUMs and more Spotify for that PPM holder who may love your morning show but can’t stand that god-awful sound accompanying the wall of music later in the day.