Electronic Measurement

Electronic measurement has been a hot topic in the world of broadcast media for some time now. Until fairly recently, TV and Radio audience measurement was tracked primarily through the use of written diaries that listeners/viewers filled out by hand (TV ratings usually combined diary results with a primitive set-tuning meter). As you might expect, this type of system is extremely susceptible to error.

It’s not like the average person is going to walk around with a notebook all week long taking copious notes on every interaction they have with the TV or radio. In practice it plays out more like this: At the end the day or week, the diary recipient fills in the diary by memory. Let’s say they are in the habit of listening to the radio each day as they get ready for work. So they fill in the 7a-7:45a time slots for each weekday and say that they listened to the morning show on channel ‘X’. The problem with this is that they did not actually get exposed to all of this programming because they were in and out of the shower, eating breakfast, blow drying their hair etc. while channel ‘X’ was on in the background. Yet the ratings will still reflect this as 3 hours and 45 minutes worth of listening for the channel ‘X’ morning show. This is just one simple example of many ways that ratings distortion can occur in a diary-based system.

Advertising agencies have been calling for a more accurate electronic measurement system for many years. As you can imagine, the very thought of changing the diary system is frightening to TV and radio companies because they know that they receive an artificial ratings boost from the diary system. So implementing the technology has been a long, slow battle between broadcasters, the ratings companies, and advertising agencies.

We have now reached the point where both Nielsen (the major TV ratings provider) and Arbitron (the major radio ratings provider) have developed electronic “people meters” that measure audiences by automatically tracking their listening and viewing habits. These systems are far from perfect but they do represent a significant increase in accuracy compared to the old methods.

As we gradually transition to these new measurement systems, advertisers should be aware of the effects of this new data on their media schedules. The most dramatic effect for both radio and television is a significant drop in Average Quarter Hour listening and viewing levels. In some cases these levels can drop by 50% or more. If you plan your broadcast buys by aiming for a certain level of gross ratings points delivered, you will need to adjust your expectations if your market is moving from diary-based to electronic measurement.

The good news is that nothing is really changing other than the accuracy of the numbers. If you were buying 100 gross ratings points for $25,000 using the old data, the same schedule/budget may now only deliver 75 gross ratings points. While it may seem like you are getting a lot less for your money, the reality is that you were never really getting the full 100 ratings points in the first place. It’s not the most pleasant thing to accept but at least we’re moving in the direction of improved accuracy.

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