LeClair is a radio engineer, RW contributor and former technical editor of
Radio World Engineering Extra.
This week I watched the
tension over the introduction
of the Voltair box
escalate ever higher.
processing presentation by Cornelius Gould of the Telos Alliance, which manufactures the processor/monitor, we
saw a sudden rush of
suits into the room that turned out to be the first wave of shock troops from the Nielsen side. It was a
visual display that felt, frankly, intimidating.
is trying hard not to say outright that PPM is broken and in need of repair; but it’s hard to put the smoke back in that
bottle (and the manufacturer
is loving the attention, let’s face it).
However, the fact remains that a lot of stations -- in
the hundreds, according to
Telos sales figures, throughout all PPM markets -- have
lost enough faith
in the ability of the PPM system to account accurately and consistently for
radio listening, to go ahead
and invest in this product.
Some of the most important
radio managers and engineers in the largest markets in the country have put big
money on the table to protect themselves.I find it hard to believe the mass of stations that rely on the PPM ecosystem
will not soon follow their lead.
So how did it get to this? Arbitron, developers of the audience measurement system later
acquired by Nielsen, took particular care to keep its technology secret; this secrecy has become a
great weakness. Who
is it that can truly answer whether the system has not discriminated against
particular formats or program choices? As keeper of all
the critical information, Arbitron/Nielsen has for years been able
to squelch individual station complaints by claiming that “their” data very clearly doesn’t show bias. But they have been reluctant
to share that data when questioned and have insisted that the industry accept their word
will no longer suffice. In my opinion, Nielsen had best get behind
some strong actions to regain radio stations’ confidence, and quick.
There may have been
good reasons to keep things
this under such strict
control at one time. Preventing
any one party from obtaining internal knowledge of the PPM system, and thus be able to manipulate the
system, is one reason to keep things secret.
Yet engineers and PDs in
large markets can be heard
quite openly talking about how to “game” the
system, and have done so
since the day it was
deployed; we have seen program
directors instructing their
dry reads. Music
under anything spoken. Dense
production values and a high level of audio processing at all times. These were techniques used
by many in the PPM world to ensure they would be counted accurately. And perhaps some of them
there was a belief on the part of many, if not all, that such things would be
This belief, or
perhaps I should say lack of belief in PPM, has exploded into
outright defiance with the introduction of the Voltair and its early use by radio
groups with the most at
stake. Those who were not in
on that game
are going to react with shock, and I would expect this will
soon turn to anger.
Nielsen presumably is well intended. It presumably has a firm
commitment to obtaining accurate data. And I recognize that obtaining such data
via a sample-based, audio watermark-type system is always going to be a process
that can be criticized in our era of detailed, instant, comprehensive analytics
of online content consumption.
I would like to tell you
what Nielsen officials have to say about all this; but Radio World’s own
efforts over recent weeks and months to obtain comment or clarifications from them
about the Voltair have been rebuffed, and not always nicely. It’s Nielsen’s
privilege not to talk to us in the press; but its relative silence and overall failure to better explain its position
publicly is one more reason it is losing a perception battle right now. We are
past the point where a bit of corporate nice-making will soothe the discussion.
told that Nielsen is evaluating the Voltair; and I suspect that after tempers
settle, Nielsen and Telos will be having some substantive conversations, probably
invisible to the market at first. We’ll see where that process goes.
But Nielsen needs to recognize it has bigger problems regarding
the radio industry’s overall trust of its product. They need to get
the conference room for another strategy session. If they choose a legalistic and confrontational
route in dealing with this storm, it’s my view that PPM
itself is in serious trouble.
From the floor …