We are coming up on an important two year anniversary for PPM, one that Arbitron will probably not be celebrating. We thought it would be a good time to see what has changed since that fateful day almost two years ago.
On November 27th, 2007 a shocked industry woke up to this announcement:
Arbitron announced today (11/26) that it will delay the commercialization of its Portable People Meter (PPM) radio ratings service in nine markets.
During the delay, Arbitron will continue to work with customers, the Media Rating Council, other industry organizations and community groups on the research and business issues related to the Portable People Meter radio ratings service in local markets.
Pressure had been mounting because of repeated sample and data processing problems. Steve Morris, then CEO of the company, stated:
We remain confident in the audience estimates that the Portable People Meter service is producing. However, over the past three weeks, feedback from our customers, the Media Rating Council and other constituencies has led us to conclude that the radio industry would be better served if we were to delay further commercialization of the PPM in order to address their issues.
We already have a number of initiatives in the pipeline for implementation in the first quarter of 2008 that we believe will improve the performance of our PPM samples. We expect that the Media Rating Council will be a particularly valuable source of guidance and advice on the more technically oriented aspects of this review and improvement process and we intend to work closely with the members of the MRC over the next several months.
It wasn’t until June 12, 2008 that Steve Morris announced that the PPM roll-out would resume, declaring: It's time to move forward with electronic measurement for radio.
This was his explanation for resuming roll-out:
We have improved our PPM samples in the four key areas we outlined last November. We have enhanced our ability to deliver PPM sample targets. We've improved the composition of our PPM panels, especially among the 18-34 demographic. We've raised the day-to-day cooperation rate of our PPM respondents. We've also put in place a number of programs designed to have a positive impact on response rates. Our commitment to continuous improvement means that we will keep working on these metrics as we go forward.
He added: We are working diligently with the Media Rating Council in order to achieve MRC accreditation for all our PPM markets.
A month later Morris announced a 10% increase in PPM sample, declaring: The PPM sample program we unveiled at the Advisory Council Meeting is a significant step forward.
Fast forward to October 2009. Arbitron has a new CEO, Michael Skarzynski who declares:
Over the past 9 months, Arbitron has made significant advancements to improve sample quality. As part of our ongoing quality initiatives, we have accelerated the prioritization of increasing our cell-phone-only sample. This new plan to increase sample targets for Persons aged 18-54 complements our recently announced commitment to increasing the number of cell-phone-only households in all PPM markets. We continue to lay the groundwork to help ensure that the radio industry has the state-of-the-art solutions and services that it will need to compete for the long-term.
While some reports essentially reprinted the press release, credit should go to those who highlighted the fact that Arbitron was actually back-stepping on its 2008 promise to the Advisory Council. It was delaying the deadline to reach the promised 10% increase in sample.
As quoted in Inside Radio, Arbitron SVP Bill Rose stated: We felt it was important enough to do those two initiatives and extend the sample increase by six months. At the end of the day, the end result is the same. Inside Radio added: (Arbitron) felt it wasn’t economically feasible to increase both cell-phone only households and in-tabs at the same time. Arbitron believes its phase-in approach will be an adequate "down payment" on its promise.
We now have two years of press releases that essentially say the same thing. Arbitron is working on initiatives to fix PPM. What they are working to fix today, is for the most part what they assured us they were fixing in 2007.
This is a version of Zeno’s paradox. It says that you can never reach a destination, because the distance between you and the destination can always be divided in half. Arbitron seems to practicing their own form of Zeno’s paradox. Arbitron repeatedly promises small improvements that never seem to reach their promise.
There really are no differences between the Steve Morris assurances and the Micheal Skarzynski assurances except the dates. Oh, and one other thing.
Steve Morris seemed to understand that Media Rating Council accreditation was important and repeatedly assured radio that Arbitron was working to gain MRC approval. We’re not seeing that assurance as much with Skarzynski.
Perhaps it has to do with the MRC memos exposed by the House Committee for Oversight and Government Reform. As reported by The Hill:
The Media Ratings Council (MRC), the independent industry body that accredits media ratings systems, turned over its audits of the PPM system to the oversight committee under subpoena. The committee put out a statement to inform the public of the serious flaws in the PPM system that these audits reveal.
According to the statement put out by the committee, the MRC's documents indicated "persistent problems" with Arbitron's minority sample audiences. For example, the committee reported that subpoenaed documents showed that a relatively small subset of individuals is providing usable data. In New York City, Arbitron recruited a sample audience of 5,400 people. But only 2,700 persons - half of the sample - provided data. The committee reports that "the radio listening habits of over four million ethnic minorities are represented by only 500 Arbitron recruits."
It is hard to put a positive spin on the release of the MRC memos. Arbitron tried by declaring:
We were aware of the Committee's contact to the Media Rating Council (MRC) and we are extremely surprised and disappointed at the analysis and erroneous conclusions reached by the Oversight Committee Staff and communicated in their press statement.
The press release does not explain what analysis or erroneous conclusions the committee made. Perhaps Arbitron could release the MRC memos with Arbitron’s critique so we could judge for ourselves whether the committee distorted or exaggerated the problem.
In any case, perhaps Mr. Skarzynski could update broadcasters on the progress of MRC accredidation. At the same time, he could declare a date when he will release a press release titled: Arbitron achieves all PPM quality goals and now provides the industry everything it has been promised.