Portable People Meter May Transform Media Measurement

Can a small compact plastic device transform media measurement and ultimately media buying?

That's what Arbitron is planning on. The leading radio research firm has developed the Portable People Meter (PPM), an electronic media measurement system that offers a number of improvements on the current systems Arbitron and Nielsen use to measure radio and TV. The PPM will measure both, which is already a monumental improvement over current systems, because it will allow advertisers and media buyers to compare TV and radio usage simultaneously and structure media buys accordingly.

Another major benefit of the PPM is that is automatically measures media usage with a coding system generated by the audio signals put out by broadcasters. Current measurement systems require participants to announce their presence by pushing buttons or filling out diaries, such as the set top boxes on their TV sets and radio diaries. "They make people reluctant to take part in the surveys," says Thomas Mocarsky, VP of communications at Arbitron. "The PPM makes it easy and passive."

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Tony Jarvis, senior VP and director of strategic assets for Mediacom, a division of Grey Global Group, calls the current systems "very old, yesterday's measurements" and looks forward to the PPM, which he lauds as "passive, compared with the diaries."

The PPM detects the codes sent by the stations, time stamps them and credits the source of the audio.

The device is portable and carried by survey participants, which points to another major improvement: it measures out of home media usage. Current measurement systems may not measure radio listening in cars on the way to work, for instance. And many people watch TV in bars or in the homes of friends, which isn't currently measured either. With the PPM, "radio and TV cumes higher than before," Mocarsky says. "It captures exposure that didn't get tracked."

In the first U.S. test conducted in Wilmington, DEL this summer, both radio and TV cumed higher at certain times of day. The tests report more radio listening on weekends in the afternoon and evening day parts. TV viewing was also higher on weekends, especially at the start of prime time.

Results like these could have a major impact on media buying. "It will help sell more advertising and enable advertisers to allocate dollars more efficiently over radio and TV," Mocarsky says. "They'll spend more dollars when they're more confident about what's being measured."

Beth Uyenco, senior vice director of research at DDB Optimum Media/Chicago, says the PPM will "redefine the value of radio and TV day parts." She thinks more advertising can be sold for early morning and late night day parts because they will show higher usage. Current systems fail to capture usage then because people are less willing to press buttons when they are showering in the morning or in bed at night, she says.

Arbitron began developing the PPM more than 10 years ago, but it is still far from ready for market. A larger test in Philadelphia early next year will follow the Wilmington test. The goal is to have it in the top 100 markets within five to six years, Mocarsky says. Then there is the need to get all broadcast stations to participate, which Mocarsky says won't be a problem because stations benefit from accurate measurements. All of the broadcast TV stations participated in the Wilmington test.

Mocarsky speaks of a $20 million investment thus far that is far short of the total needed. Arbitron needs a partner in the venture and is looking to Nielsen, its long time rival, which it has never worked with before. Arbitron has sold Nielsen first refusal rights, meaning Nielsen has already invested in the venture. But it isn't committed yet. Mocarsky calls Nielsen the ideal partner but admits it is looking at other options. Arbitron has to demonstrate the effectiveness of the PPM through the tests it runs to win Nielsen's commitment.

But Uyenco is wary of such a partnership. "There's some trepidation," she says, because "there's a lot of uncertainty about how involved Nielsen will be." Jarvis is also wary, claiming the companies are competitors and that competition is needed in the industry.

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