Yes, if we’re talking about PPM ratings.
Ratings are no longer just a measure of how many people listen to a radio station.
PPM’s technology creates winners and losers based also on the sound properties of the content, the level at which a format is listened, and the ambient noise surrounding the panelist.
Accurate PPM ratings require that the meters reliably detect and identify radio stations over time. And as it turns out, the process is not 100% reliable.
When PPM launched, Arbitron claimed that if a listener could hear the radio, the meter would pick up the station and properly credit it. But now we know that isn’t completely true.
Independent research has shown that ambient noise can mask the encoded signal so that no listening is recorded. Research has also shown that a radio station played in the background might not be loud enough for the meter to pick up the encoded signal.
And research has shown that a radio station with dynamic programming that includes occasional periods of silence or low level audio (think Classical or Talk radio) might miss some of the credit it deserves as the meter struggles to identify the station.
To understand how PPM can kill formats, we have to go back to the very beginnings of Arbitron’s efforts to sell PPM to broadcasters.
Early in the development of PPM there were concerns that the analog encoding tones would be audible. Arbitron’s solution was to inject the encoding data at a much lower level than a station’s audio, and to maintain the level difference regardless of the level of a station’s audio.
If a station’s audio level increases, the level of encoding tones increases as well. More significantly, if the station’s loudness drops, the encoding level drops as well.
If a station goes quiet for a moment, encoding stops.
And if there’s no audio around 1 kHz to 3 kHz (the frequency range used by PPM) to mask the encoding, encoding stops.
Arbitron’s assurances that listeners wouldn’t hear the encoding seemed to satisfy US broadcasters.
The problem was that the industry never demanded that Arbitron prove that the meters would properly credit stations at the encoding levels the company settled on.
Now, a decade into PPM we know that PPM is costing radio stations quarter-hours. And the number of quarter-hours lost varies by format.
Remember the death of Smooth Jazz at the hands of PPM? Smooth Jazz was the first format to suffer death by PPM.
One by one, Smooth Jazz stations disappeared as markets switched to PPM. Stations that had been pulling respectable numbers in the diaries virtually disappeared in PPM.
Most Smooth Jazz eulogies pointed to PPM’s role, but blamed the format, not flaws in PPM technology as the root problem. The assumption was that PPM was accurate and that the format really didn’t have as many listeners as it thought.
It didn’t occur to anyone that PPM might not pick up a format like Smooth Jazz played in the background.
New/Talk is another format that took a hit when PPM replaced the diaries.
Spoken word formats are filled with pauses and moments of dead air. As far as PPM is concerned, being silent is no different from being off the air.
It is also a format with deep voices and often not a lot of content within the requisite 1-3 kHz range. With infrequent masking content, there’s little chance that a meter will accurately log listening to News/Talk.
Now after a decade of willful ignorance of these weaknesses within PPM, broadcasters are discovering that they can increase their ratings by processes the encoding signal to increase the chance a meter will properly capture the listening.
A company has been quietly testing a device that optimizes the encoding process. Some test stations are reportedly seeing 15-20% rating gains.
This in line with estimates made in a 2004 research study that suggested that PPM might be missing upwards of 20% of exposed listening.
Maybe if this device had been around as PPM rolled out, Smooth Jazz would still be around.
Maybe radio would look a lot different today.