PPM draws repeated fire


Two committees of the New York City Council held a hearing yesterday on a proposed resolution calling for the FCC to investigate whether Arbitron’s PPM undercounts minority listeners. Of course, the FCC is already considering whether to launch a probe of PPM – with a big question yet to be answered of whether it has any jurisdiction to do so.

“Today I am here to talk about the greatest threat to the survival of minority owned radio in the United States,” said Jim Winston, Executive Director of the National Association of Black Owned Broadcasters (NABOB), as he began his blistering attack on PPM.

For his part, Arbitron CEO Steve Morris insisted that “the PPM sample is as representative of the diversity of New York City and of the New York radio market as the diary sample is today.”

The NYC hearing came hot on the heels of New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo subpoenaing a mother-lode of documents from Arbitron on PPM for his own investigation into whether minority listeners are undercounted.

Winston told the City Council that when PPM was first introduced in Houston and Philadelphia, leading stations serving African-American and Hispanic audiences suffered steep ratings declines. He lashed out at Arbitron for deficiencies in recruiting and retaining minorities in PPM panels. And he noted that while it is known that Arbitron failed to win Media Rating Council accreditation of PPM in Philadelphia and New York, little more is known because of the secrecy of MRC proceedings.

In his testimony yesterday, Winston tried to sidestep the issue of whether or not the FCC even has any jurisdiction over Arbitron. He compared it to when Congress was investigating Nielsen ratings and the MRC provided confidential information to Congress. He wants the FCC to do the same regarding PPM. “This would be a fact finding inquiry, not an effort to assert regulatory jurisdiction over Arbitron or the MRC,” Winston said.

Morris said Arbitron is committed to working with the NY City Council and local broadcasters to resolve PPM issues, but as far as passing the resolution is concerned, “We believe that would be a mistake,” he said. “Most importantly, the FCC does not have jurisdiction over our service. Diverting everyone’s time and attention to a proceeding on the part of a federal agency that lacks both jurisdiction and specialized knowledge is not the best use of anyone’s resources. We should be working constructively with our clients in the radio industry to address specific diary-to-PPM transition issues,” Morris told the Council.

To explain why some stations experienced audience estimate declines under PPM than under diaries, Morris displayed examples of diaries where a 39-year-old African-American female, a 24-year-old Hispanic male and a non-Black, non-Hispanic 28-year-old “other” male had each filled in long blocks of uninterrupted listening in the New York Spring Survey. He said such overstated “heavy listening” is fairly common with diaries, whereas PPM “can only report what you actually hear…not your perception of what you heard.”

Not surprisingly, Winston has a different view of which is more accurate. “PPM’s attribution of sporadic listening, and the lack of a metric that reflects listener engagement also add to the under-representation of minorities in the panel results,” he insisted.

Charles Warfield, President and COO of ICBC Broadcast Holdings (Inner City) detailed huge ratings declines under PPM for his own company’s WBLS-FM New York and other stations serving minority audiences in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and Philadelphia. He attacked the PPM methodology because it “does not take listener choice into account or engagement with a stations, therefore, passive measurement is skewed toward general market stations.

Warfield issued a warning: “The continued, unabated roll-out of PPM data by Arbitron will result in huge financial losses for radio stations serving the Black and Hispanic audiences and might even force some stations out of business. For ICBC Broadcast Holding, this is a Civil Rights issue. This is about survival. The commercialization of flawed ratings data will directly affect the ability of current owners to service debt, repay debt, employee staff and serve the communities we live in and are committed to serve.”

Ceril Shagin, Exec. VP of the Corporate Research Division for Univision Communications, took aim at Arbitron’s PPM audience sample, citing her own experience before Univision as manager of Nielsen Hispanic Services. She questioned whether Arbitron’s recruiting methods produced representative samples and particularly whether it was bringing in enough Hispanics whose primary language is Spanish or young Hispanics, who are more likely than the general population to live in cell phone-only households.

“Some PPM samples may have enough Hispanics, but are those Hispanics representative of thei city being measured? Arbitron does not collect or share enough information about their sample to know if participants are representative,” she complained.

“Arbitron sets its goals too low. They set an overall standard of 75% of persons 6+ providing usable data and 60% of persons 18-34. That is not acceptable for currency data,” Shagin said.

She demanded that Arbitron be made to delay making PPM data ratings currency in new York and other markets until the accuracy and reliability of the data is improved. “These estimates become the currency with which radio is bought and sold. Spanish radio will not continue to exist if our currency is counterfeit,” Shagin told the eharing. 

RBR/TVBR observation: The New York City Council is likely to vote on the resolution on September 24th, which also happens to be the deadline at the FCC for the first round of comments on whether or not it should initiate the inquiry into PPM that is being sought by NABOB, the Spanish Radio Association, the Association of Hispanic Advertising Agencies, Border Media, Entravision, Univision, SBS and Inner City. Our guess is that the resolution will pass overwhelmingly, since there is no downside to City Council members voting yes. After all, asking the FCC to do something will not require any commitment of money or other resources by the City of New York. On the other hand, voting no would draw the ire of several hometown radio stations, which is not the sort of thing that politicians like to do.