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FCC Will Review Arbitron PPM

Agency seeks to learn whether new methodology affects station diversity; McDowell questions authority

Commissioner Adelstein is getting his way.

The FCC commissioner first called for an investigation into the methodology of the Arbitron Portable People Meter last year. Now, just before he plans to leave the agency, the Federal Communications Commission has issued a Notice of Inquiry. Officially, the inquiry will review the impact of “Arbitron audience ratings measurements on radio broadcasters,” according to the title — though in reality, it is expected to focus on PPM.

Hispanic- and black-owned stations have said the PPM undercounts minorities, and Arbitron has worked to improve the PPM samples to include more such listeners. However the Hispanic Broadcasters Association and the National Association of Black Owned Broadcasters say more needs to be done. The HBA and NABOB assert PPM undercounts and misrepresents the number and loyalty of minority radio listeners, which could affect their ability to provide service to African-American and Hispanic audiences.

Arbitron and other PPM proponents, including many programmers, say PPM is a great improvement over the paper diary measurement. Arbitron has met with commission representatives over the past few weeks on PPM. In fact, in the notice, the FCC states: “We have a strong interest in encouraging innovative advancements that lead to improved information and data.”

The commission says its inquiry will focus on the impact of PPM methodology as well as whether the audience ratings data is sufficiently accurate and reliable to merit the FCC’s own reliance on the data. Acting Chairman Michael Copps noted that the agency relies on Arbitron data to evaluate the buying and selling of stations as well as to issue industry trend reports and conduct congressionally mandated reviews of our media ownership rules. “Without confidence in the underlying data, those important functions could be undercut,” he stated.

Arbitron couldn’t be reached for immediate comment. In the past, it has argued that the agency doesn’t regulate the company.

Copps noted in his remarks that indeed the FCC does not regulate Arbitron; but he said, “We do not regulate banks either, and yet we should — indeed, we must — take into account the difficulties of access to capital if we are going to develop effective rules. Anything that affects media diversity and minority ownership … affects our ability to do our job.” The NOI, Copps said, “does not draw any conclusions.”

The agency does state in the notice: “If there is an adverse impact, we seek comment on further steps the Commission can and should take to address these issues.”

The sole GOP commissioner, Robert McDowell, focused on whether the agency in fact has authority to do anything, no matter what the probe turns up. “I expect to pay particular attention to analyses of the commission’s authority to take any further action in this arena,” he stated.

Comments to Docket MB 08-187 are due 30 days after the item is published in the Federal Register.