Senators worry about PPM rollout


Two US Senate committee chairmen have written to Arbitron CEO Steve Morris expressing concerns about whether the Portable People Meter (PPM) under-reports minority listenership and thus threatens broadcast diversity. The carefully worded letter from Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-HI) and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) does not specifically call on Arbitron to halt the PPM rollout, but to “take all steps available, prior to rolling out the PPM system in additional markets, to ensure that the system accurately measures the listening behavior in a market and that no station is unfairly harmed.”

Arbitron was quick to point out that the letter from the two Senators focuses on the Media Rating Council as the primary authority on ratings quality. “We will keep Senator Inouye and Senator Leahy informed of our plans, progress and continuing efforts to deliver PPM radio ratings services that are valid, fair and representative of the diversity of the radio markets we measure,” said Morris.

Inouye, Chairman of the Commerce Committee, and Leahy, Chairman of the Judiciary Committee, noted that the FCC is seeking comments on whether it should investigate whether PPM will have a detrimental and discriminatory effect on stations targeting minority audiences. And they noted that the attorneys general of both New York and New Jersey have launched their own investigations.

The senators noted that Arbitron had successfully obtained MRC accreditation in the Houston market, “which has helped to assuage many of the concerns raised by broadcasters.” But they worry about having PPM replace diaries in other markets, where Arbitron is using a different recruiting methodology than that in Houston. “If the methodology used in the unaccredited markets is underreporting listenership in certain urban or Hispanic-oriented programming, thereby distorting the market, it will harm the important broadcast policy of diversity,” the letter warned.

“In light of the potential for severe harm to media diversity, we strongly encourage you to continue working with the MRC toward accreditation in all markets in which Arbitron plans to commercialize PPMs as the sole ratings method. As you know, the MRC’s Voluntary Code of Conduct discourages ratings companies from discontinuing use of an accredited ratings method, such as Arbitron’s diary service, until a replacement method is accredited. We ask that you please provide us with an explanation of your decision to use a different methodology in Houston than other markets in which Arbitron intends to roll-out PPMs. Please also continue to update us as to Arbitron’s plans to commercialize the PPM system and the status of the Federal and State proceedings,” Inouye and Leahy wrote.

Just as the senators were careful not to explicitly demand that Arbitron halt the commercialization of PPM in eight more markets, including the nation’s three largest, just 16 days from today, Arbitron was careful not to take the bait on running PPM and diary service in parallel.

“Arbitron will continue to follow the minimum requirements of the MRC Voluntary Code of Conduct and will continuously strive to improve PPM radio ratings services,” Morris said in a company statement. Adhering to the minimum requirements is obviously not the same as doing everything that the MRC would like to see done.

“We are pleased that Senator Inouye and Senator Leahy recognize the pre-eminent role of the Media Rating Council process as the driving force for quality improvements in the ratings services that the media industry counts on,” Morris also said. Arbitron has consistently stated that the MRC is the proper authority to judge PPM, not the FCC or any state attorney general.

But that said, Arbitron is willing to talk to just about anyone on a voluntary basis to defend the quality of PPM ratings. “Throughout the deployment of the Portable People Meter ratings services, Arbitron has voluntarily briefed elected officials on many aspects of PPM radio ratings. We will keep Senator Inouye and Senator Leahy informed of our plans, progress and continuing efforts to deliver PPM radio ratings services that are valid, fair and representative of the diversity of the radio markets we measure,” Morris said.

RBR/TVBR observation: Those MRC double-checks. So much of the debate over whether PPM is or is not valid would vanish if the methodology that Arbitron is using in all markets except Houston could win MRC accreditation. Until that happens, broadcasters who don’t like the data produced by PPM will have plenty of ammunition to keep up their attacks on Arbitron and rally politicians to their side.