Voltair Creates Drama

Telos’ 25-Seven Systems debuts PPM processor/monitor
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A processor/monitor that debuted at the show generated lots of conversation among broadcasters and programmers who use Nielsen Portable People Meter ratings.

As we reported in the March 25 issue, the Voltair is made by 25-Seven Systems, part of the Telos Alliance. Its debut fanned the ambivalence that some programmers feel about the accuracy of the PPM encoding and monitoring process.

Nielsen acquired Arbitron in 2013 and as part of that, acquired that PPM ratings measurement technology. Some programmers and engineers believe that stations airing “soft” formats, like classical music or talk, don’t encode as well in the PPM process as “loud” formats, like rock, do, and that programmers further can “game” the system by adopting certain programming tricks with their audio.

HIGH STAKES

Some of the programmers who doubt the validity of the encoding process believe placing Voltair in their processing chain will ensure that station ratings are more accurate, while other observers who spoke to Radio World on condition of anonymity deem the product a “black box” that could potentially do the opposite.

Telos said it has sold more than 300 of the units at a list price of $15,000 and that the device is on the air in every PPM market in the United States. Some programmers believe that if a processor can help produce even small improvements in ratings performance, it could mean significant difference in revenue, especially for stations in the largest markets.

Attention to the product drew the notice of Nielsen. The research firm has not commented to Radio World or other press on the Voltair, but tension between Nielsen and Telos was evident before the conference and during two Broadcast Engineering Conference panels.

Nielsen distributed a note to clients stating that it “does not recommend that clients use the Voltair” until its testing and validation are complete. Telos Alliance CEO Frank Foti responded with a client memo titled “Nielsen Schmielsen!”

Cornelius Gould, senior algorithm developer for the Telos Alliance, and Dr. Barry Blesser, director of engineering for 25-Seven Systems, both said Nielsen asked them to read a statement at the start of their NAB presentations. Essentially, the statement indicated that Telos and Nielsen have been talking for several months to see if they can come to a “win-win path for all of the relevant stakeholders” and that “Telos is working with Nielsen to support their efforts to test the effect of Voltair on audience measurement.” According to Telos, Nielsen has had a Voltair unit to test since January.

In a separate note to clients, Nielsen said it will update clients when its testing is complete.

Gould was careful to use the term “watermarking” rather than PPM or Portable People Meter during his presentation. Blesser noted that “PPM, which is a registered trademark of watermark encoding, belongs to a larger class of watermark encoding,” and he wasn’t just discussing one system.

After the Gould session, a Nielsen representative who attended twice told Radio World that he couldn’t comment on the issue. A third attempt to contact the company for a comment was not answered.

Promotional cards at the show publicized Blesser’s session and stated, “It’s not about flaws in the system. Voltair simply helps you get the listening credit you deserve.” These cards subsequently were pulled from the booth, according to 25-Seven Systems VP and Founder Geoff Steadman, who said Nielsen “asked us to tone it down.”

LOTS OF GUESSING

Some broadcasters speculated to Radio World that Nielsen could resolve the situation by buying the technology from Telos; but when asked whether such an offer had been made, Steadman said, “No one’s made us an offer that I know about.”

A broadcast source close to the former Arbitron said that Nielsen is probably trying to determine in its testing whether the Voltair amounts to “gaming” its ratings system. Broadcasters have tried various “home-brewed” methods to do that over the years, but if caught, the research firm can “de-list” your station from the local ratings. “And then good luck getting your money back” for the balance of the contract, he said.

Before the show, Nielsen told attendees at an SBE meeting in Columbia, Md., that it has developed an updated PPM encoder and confidence monitor. Its new encoders are in use at some 300 stations, we’ve reported; Nielsen hasn’t released its new monitors to stations as yet. It’s unclear if the updated versions address what some perceive to be system shortcomings.

Numerous observers summed up the situation this way: “It’s about to get uglier” because now lawyers are involved.

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