NEWS14 July 2009

PPM critics call for second congressional investigation

Government North America

US— Critics of Arbitron’s portable people meter-based (PPM) radio ratings system are lobbying for a second congressional investigation into claims that minority broadcasters have been adversely affected by the introduction of the technology.

James Winston, executive director of the National Association of Black Owned Broadcasters (Nabob), led calls for the House Committee on the Judiciary – chaired by Congressman John Conyers (pictured) – to intervene at a hearing last Thursday, citing Arbitron’s “failure” to obtain accreditation from the Media Rating Council (MRC) in 13 out of 15 PPM markets as grounds for an investigation.

“Arbitron has not implemented PPM correctly, and the refusal of the MRC to accredit it only reinforces the accuracy of Nabob’s assessment,” Winston said. “If Arbitron is allowed to move forward issuing flawed reports on African-American and Hispanic audiences, it will result in huge financial losses for the radio stations serving those audiences and might even force some stations out of business.”

Last week’s hearing focused on trends affecting minority broadcast ownership. Though other issues were raised in the testimonies given by witnesses, the introduction of PPM emerged as a common cause for concern. Already the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee are holding their own inquiries.

Broadcasters targeting ethnic minorities claim that the PPM system, which is being rolled out to replace the old diary-based method in major US radio markets, is undercounting their audiences because black and Hispanic listeners are not properly represented in the sample.

Kendall Minter, chairman of Rhythm & Blues Foundation, told the hearing the system “may create an unfair burden for younger trending stations, due to the size of the PPM unit”. He said: “Many younger and fashion-conscious [people] find the unit cumbersome. A technology addition to PPM that could include coverage to a cell phone could help level the playing field, and this committee and the FCC should look into the effectiveness of this device.”

Meanwhile, Jay Schwartzman, president and CEO of the Media Access Project, suggested regulation may be in order “to insure the integrity of the system”.

“Since the fragility of minority-owned radio impacts all Americans, the introduction of the PPM technology is a matter of legitimate concern for the FCC and this committee,” he said.

Arbitron CEO Michael Skarzynski was on hand to defend the PPM at the hearing. He told the committee the representation of Black and Hispanic groups in the sample was “strong”, and he highlighted commitments the company has made to “continuous improvement” of the ratings system.

As to the issue of MRC accreditation, he said Arbitron was “fully committed to the process” but warned against any attempts by government to make accreditation mandatory. He said: “It is important to note that MRC accreditation of an innovative technology market by market involves a significant investment of resources and money and takes years to achieve. There is no clearly defined timeline or benchmarks that an organisation must meet in order to be accredited. Clearly, the result of government regulation would be outdated technology.”