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Nielsen “Reiterates Non Support” of Voltair, But Plans Improvements to PPM

Company holds national webinar for its ratings clients

Nielsen Audio has “reiterated its non-support” for the controversial Voltair product. It made the statement more than once in a private national webinar for its radio clients and industry leaders.

But the company also announced planned technical tweaks to its system, intended to help assure reliable PPM performance in difficult listening conditions, including a new station monitor that will be distributed to all radio stations later this year.

According to notes from an attendee obtained by Radio World, the company told clients in the webinar that it had conducted tests of Voltair and concluded that the $15,000 processor, made by 25-Seven Systems/Telos Alliance, can introduce audible artifacts for listeners, interfere with the Nielsen encoding and result in “credit for unintelligible listening.” It can also “introduce variability” through station-controlled settings, Nielsen said. And because Voltair is not universally implemented, it “results in an unequal market dynamic.”

Nielsen did find that in certain situations where background noise is equal or greater than the audio content, the PPM could pick up more codes with Voltair; but Nielsen doesn’t know whether this is “true listening.” But it said the only situations in which Voltair seemed to help were “boundary conditions.” The presentation included charts showing various conditions and the reliability of the watermark detection in each, according to the attendee notes.

It said that it has been working on enhancements to its system already and have been expediting them due to market conditions. They promised enhancements in the fourth quarter of this year. They promised improvements to the PPM system’s “critical band encoding” and they will issue a “next generation” in-station monitor that will be for all PPM station users. (See “Nielsen to Increase Code Density.”)

Technical details of those changes were not provided; the company said it has more info yet to share about testing and other details with its own advisory council as well as industry leadership groups. However, “We will work with clients and put a plan in front of you for deployment,” one company official said. And Nielsen promised a comprehensive review of its established crediting rules.

Officials from the NAB, RAB and the Media Rating Council were also invited to listen in to the national webinar.

“Nielsen is confident in the PPM system,” company exec Jennifer Huston was quoted as saying near the top of its meeting.

There was no mention of any legal action involving the product’s users or manufacturers, something that had been speculated about. But the company several times “reiterated its non support of Voltair.”

As to whether any ratings had increased because of Voltair, one speaker said Nielsen has no way for sure to know, in part because the list of Voltair users isn’t public, but that “Nielsen stands behind the ratings that have been released.”

Radio World requested comment from both Nielsen and 25-Seven in advance of today’s webinar, and will report what we hear.

Nielsen Audio had promised clients “an update on Nielsen’s planned enhancements to the PPM system as well as tests conducted on the Voltair product.” Speakers at the event included Matt O’Grady, the company’s EVP of local media client solutions; Jennifer Huston, SVP of product leadership; and Arun Ramaswamy, its chief engineer.

The introduction of the Voltair last year has prompted new focus on the technical accuracy of Nielsen Audio audience measurement process, specifically its Portable People Meter technology — which some managers feel tends to underreport certain radio formats — as well as steps that radio managers may take to maximize their stations’ performance in the resulting ratings. Among the questions are whether the product is essentially helping make the PPM system — based on detection of audio “watermarks” — more accurate, or providing an advantage to those who use it.

Manufacturer 25-Seven Systems has sold some 650 units, with some 95% of those in the United States, Radio World has learned. The list price is $15,000; the unit is sold only direct by the company, part of the Telos Alliance.

Industry reports and programming consultants have cited apparent instances of ratings changes as a result of stations using the box.

In June, industry news outlets reported that Canada’s ratings agency told Canadian broadcasters to turn off any Voltairs pending the outcome of testing.