Arbitron Brewing Ratings Controversy: A Nielsen Repeat

New technology, disappearing ratings, and a potentially hairy political problem: That’s what Arbitron (ARB) is looking at as it rolls out its new electronic measurement systems for radio audiences, which replace its archaic pen-and-paper diaries. The new systems should be a godsend for advertisers, but they’re a problem for stations that appeal to black and Hispanics, because the new ARB ratings show much lower listener numbers than the old ones.

The activation of so-called personal people meters (PPM) has caused steep drops in ratings for black and Hispanic stations in Houston, Philadelphia and New York. In Arbitron’s New York test, one Spanish-language station, WPAT 91.3, dropped from 7th in the market over the summer to 19th during October. Now Arbitron is dealing with angry station owners, who want the system overhauled.

Does any of this sound familiar? It should…

Nielsen had a similar problem when it switched its TV measurement systems in 2004, which also reduced estimates of some programming aimed at blacks and Hispanics. That imbroglio eventually involved Congressional hearings, an astro-turfed “Don’t Count Us Out” campaign backed by News Corp., and a lot of dollars funneled to expensive lobbyists. Nielsen eventually revised its sample to include more Hispanic households, which tend to be younger and more populous, and the scandal died away.

This time around, Arbitron says it “welcomes” an independent review of its measurement system. But if they’re going to end up making concessions for political reasons, best to get it over with now.

Earlier: It turns out rich people listen to radio, too.

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