It is fascinating to see the jockeying going on in Los Angeles as Nielsen continues to dig into the meters to determine what went wrong. In a story that has now moved any remaining controversy about Casey Kasem’s illness and passing off the front page, all attention continues to be focused on the efficacy of the ratings, specifically in the L.A. market.
But around the country, broadcast professionals – from the corner office to the air studio – are wondering how one household (or even two) could wreak so much havoc in the nation’s second largest market. If it happened in L.A., it could happen anywhere. And if one residence can affect a market the size of Los Angeles, what impact could a single family dwelling have in Charlotte. Or Milwaukee? Or Cleveland?
Is the lesson here that Nielsen had better police its system better? Or that it must increase its PPM sample size? Or that broadcasters are paying too much for ratings that are increasingly unstable?
Or does the power of one household to have this type of effect on the ratings suggest something else entirely?
Maybe – to turn the phrase – the fault is in ourselves, not in our stars – or in this case, the ratings.
That’s not to say that Nielsen isn’t going to have to come up with answers to what apparently went wrong in L.A. But when a system covers 48 markets and thousands and thousands of families, there are going to be some improprieties, scamming, and problems along the way. There are holes in every fence.
That’s why perhaps the lesson in all of this is how we in radio use the ratings. While advertisers may parse them down to the tenths and hundredths in order to make their buying decisions, the fact is that many broadcast teams do the same thing when it comes to making programming, strategic, hiring, and firing decisions.
How often has a format change or staffing purge taken place based largely on a ratings weekly, monthly, or quarterly, only to see those numbers reverse before the new format or programmer is even in place? How many bad decisions get made on the thin line of the ratings, often because of a literal interpretation of the Arbitron… and now Nielsen numbers?
I’ve been on both sides of this ball, winning and losing some, and when a situation like L.A. happens, it is a sobering reminder of the fragility of the system.
And while the traditional ways of measuring audience perceptions may have fallen behind the modern-day real-time meter technology, the fact that a single household can change the order and shape of the ratings – and the careers of many – is something that Nielsen cannot fix or correct, even if they are somehow able to ensure the validity of every single meter holder in their system.
And sample stability isn’t going to occur even if Nielsen adds a few hundred meters per market. Researchers will tell you that statistical confidence typically requires sample sizes to double or triple in order to make a difference. Even if Nielsen is able to better police and monitor its PPM families, the ups, the downs, the dips, the spikes, and the weirdness will continue. Every quarter, month, and week.
It comes down to station management teams, cluster managers, and owners either having the confidence in its products and its people or not. Nielsen cannot possibly provide that guidance. It comes from that internal knowledge and discipline that you’re building a bona fide brand, that you’ve seen evidence in multiple research settings that you’re for real, and that advertisers see the results when they invest in your product and your people. If you’re looking for validation in the ratings, studying the often unpredictable variances from month to month ought to tell you that you have a star role in a fool’s game.
It’s become something of a joke, but the ratings are just estimates. When something goes very wrong, there are always going to be managers screaming for someone’s head (“Someone has to pay for this”), whether it’s the Veterans Administration or General Motors,
But the fact is that the weakness and irrationality that surround the ratings often lies with the end user.
All of us.
Jacobs Media has consistently walked the walk in the digital space, providing insights and guidance through its well-read national Techsurveys.
In 2008, jacapps was launched - a mobile apps company that has designed and built more than 1,000 apps for both the Apple and Android platforms. In 2013, the DASH Conference was created - a mashup of radio and automotive, designed to foster better understanding of the "connected car" and its impact.
Along with providing the creative and intellectual direction for the company, Fred consults many of Jacobs Media's commercial and public radio clients, in addition to media brands looking to thrive in the rapidly changing tech environment.