FCC Opens Inquiry into Arbitron PPMs

The FCC has opened an inquiry into Arbitron's Portable People Meters (PPM), citing requests from broadcasters and its own Advisory Committee on Diversity.

Critics of the meters allege it underreports minority radio listening and could harm diversity and competition. The Diversity Committee argued that "Arbitron's use of an audience measurement service that may not accurately measure minority audiences could lead to 'irreparable' financial harm to stations serving such audiences and, thus, lead to the loss of service that such stations provide to the public," the FCC said in laying out its reasoning for the inquiry.

Acting FCC Chairman Michael Copps has made it clear that taking steps to boost minority ownership and diversity of programming are among his top priorities.

That inquiry comes despite the fact, as the FCC points out, that Arbitron "reached settlements regarding its PPM methodologies in New York, New Jersey and Maryland, has adopted improvements to the methodology, and has committed to continuing to improve its PPM methodology."

The FCC Monday sought comment and evidence on PPM methodology and its effect on minority and urban listeners, as well as suggestions for what to do about it if PPM critics are correct.

While it is primarily about radio listening, the issue is important to TV stations as well.

The FCC uses Arbitron markets in its multiple ownership rules, which determine in which markets TV, radio and newspapers can be co-owned. "Should the Commission modify its own reliance on Arbitron market data in applying its multiple ownership rules if it determines that PPM data are unreliable?" the commission asks in the order.

There has been some question, including by Arbitron, about whether the FCC even has jurisdiction over Arbitron ratings, so the inquiry includes a directive that commenters make their case for why the FCC would have authority over whatever action they propose.

Arbitron argues that the FCC has neither the authority or the relevant expertise. It also disputes that ratings for minority-targeted stations are hurt by PPMs, offering evidence of stations whose ratings went up with PPMs. It also says its sample reflects Black and Hispanic viewing--critics says minorities are underrepresented on its panels. The company has also taken steps to improve PPMs

Arbitron challenges the assertion that the ratings of minority oriented stations suffer when PPM methodology is used. Arbitron provides several examples where the rankings of such stations remained the same or improved when PPMs were used. Arbitron maintains that PPM samples effectively represent Blacks and Hispanics in the 18-34 age group, and across other factors such as geographic location and language preferences. The company is also implementing improvements to PPM methodology.

Commenters have 30 days after the order is published in the Federal Register (probably a couple of weeks) to weigh in, with reply comments due 30 days after that.

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.