Counting on It: Arbitron's Portable People Meter Moves Ahead

Last year, Wilmington, Del. This year, Philadelphia. Is it ready for market yet? That’s what the media-buying community is asking about Arbitron’s Portable People Meter, a media measurement system that is still being tested, with an uncertain launch date. Arbitron has been working on the system for more than ten years and began testing it last year, with astounding but uncertain results: Astounding because it reports much higher media usage than the standard measurement devices; uncertain because the new data hasn’t been confirmed, since the preliminary sample size in Wilmington was too small.

(continued on page 25) (cont. from 22) Which is why this year’s test in Philadelphia is the next big step. While only 300 people were involved in the Wilmington tests, 1,500 are being tested in Philly. The increased sample size will allow direct comparisons of audiences for individual radio and TV stations.

The PPM, a small compact device that users carry with them, measures media exposure by detecting codes embedded in the broadcast signal. It is preferable to the current measurement systems—Nielsen’s set-top boxes for TV and Arbitron’s radio diaries—because it is easier to use. The fact that it is portable means that it measures out-of-home use, one of the main reasons for the higher numbers. But the discrepancies between the two sets of numbers must be understood before the new data can be accepted.

Among the findings of the initial tests: the rating for all broadcast media was 18 percent higher than the diary rating; average quarter hour (AQH) numbers were higher, with 25.6 percent of persons 12+ consuming media, versus 22.2 with traditional measurements; broadcast tv was 13 percent higher than the Nielsen rating; cable TV was more than twice as high. Radio ratings were also higher, but not as much higher as TV.

The higher ratings are exciting, because they could be used by Arbitron’s agency customers to sell more advertising. “It will help sell more advertising and enable advertisers to allocate dollars more efficiently over radio and TV,” says Tom Mocarsky, an Arbitron spokesman. “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, believes the higher numbers will “redefine the value of radio and TV day parts.” She believes more advertising can be sold for the day parts where higher numbers are reported. But before that can happen, the higher numbers have to be confirmed. “People have to have a certain confidence in the data,” says Jack Loftus, a Nielsen spokesman. Arbitron and Nielsen are working together on the venture, with Nielsen a possible partner.

The goal of the Philly tests will be to evaluate how the PPM’s expanded definition of audience and its ability to collect out-of-home data affects audience estimates. “We will examine the demographic composition by day part to evaluate the PPM’s ability to capture the audience properly,” Loftus says. “Finally, we will need to understand more about the reasons for the differences in the estimates reported by the PPM compared to Arbitron’s diary and Nielsen’s meters.”

The results of the Philly test could lead to the official introduction of the PPM, first in Philly and later in other markets. Mocarsky says Arbitron hopes to introduce the PPM commercially in Philly by midyear for TV and early next year for radio, since Arbitron needs more time to build the sample for radio. “The PPM will replace the traditional devices,” he says. “This is the information our customers are looking for as they prepare to use a new way of measuring radio, television, and cable audiences.”—Ken Liebeskind

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