-“Once that bad November drops out, we’ll be in great shape.”
-“There’s that lag time between when our TV runs and when it registers in Arbitron.”
-“How could we lose 75% of our 18-34 Men in just one month?”
-“The next trend will tell us a lot about how our morning show is growing.”
-“Our cume is down. Obviously, the boards didn’t work.”
-“How could every Rock station go down?
-“Get our Arbitron rep on the phone to explain how this could happen.”
-“It was a weird month.”
-“I can’t wait for the next trend – our contest should really move the needle.”
If you’ve uttered one of these quotes in 2006, read on.
It’s the time of year when Arbitron books are just released and we all try to make sense out of what’s happened over the first 90 days of the year. Of course, now that the quarterly reports are being delivered, we can clearly see a clearer picture forming. We can now determine how the Arbitrends we’ve been “analyzing” these last couple of months now tell us a story. Or do they?
Fact is that most radio folks spend lots and lots of time questioning reality, ourselves, our PDs, our formats, and yes, our consultants during these weeks and months. With each new Arbitrend and obligatory extrapolation, we attempt to explain, justify, and rationalize what’s happening to our stations. But at the end of the day – as they say – they still make very little sense. Arbitron tells us not to break out individual months, but of course, we cannot help ourselves. The data is there; therefore, we must analyze it.
But these numbers are essentially flawed to begin with. The diary system is broken, but we have no choice but to press on – and deal with it. Arbitron increasingly cannot improve its consent rate, its young diary representation, its ethnic weighting, and of course, its “cell phone only” situation. Add to this that AOL has announced plans to provide – free to its members – new “phone numbers” that will enable users to make and receive Internet calls. In the process, this moves consumers even further away from their landlines.
Not all ratings are flawed. Isn’t it interesting how a half dozen different polling organizations can nail President Bush’s popularity numbers within a couple points of each other? We believe these numbers because we see them replicated in credible source after credible source.
In real life, there are no “AC months.” In real life, the diaries don’t go to the wrong zip codes. In real life, all the 18-24s don’t go on vacation at the same time. But we keep our heads down, and don’t question the system. The industry seems to be getting nowhere on the passive measurement issue. And in the process, the diary system continues to put programmers, managers, and owners in the uncomfortable position of making bad decisions with faulty data.
Blasphemous? You bet. But when you actually review the range of emotional responses to inconsistent, unbelievable numbers that pour out over months and months of Arbitrends and Arbitrons, you have to question why we continue to put up with it. As an organization that receives station ratings from 50 markets every 30 days, we have painfully come to realize how this data makes it impossible for stations to intelligently use them.
The example below – with our “fictional reactions” next to each month – is real. They are taken from a medium market Active Rock station over a one-year period. This station does very little differently in any given month. They don’t do much in the way of marketing, they don’t do callout, and they haven’t bought a perceptual study since the last millennium. They’ve had the same program director during this time, and he’s a level-headed, consistent guy.
Not a great way to run a business. And if you don’t believe me, show these numbers to someone “outside radio” and ask them to make conclusions about this station’s ratings. The odds are good that a person with an average IQ will tell you that it looks like this station changes formats every 90 days or so.
We need a better measurement system. We need a better tool for making plans and creating strategies. I’m not telling you that passive measurement will solve these problems, but how many bad decisions, format changes, management firings, and morning show blowups are going to occur – for all the wrong reasons? For all the right reasons, we need to leave the diary system back there with 8-tracks, black-and-white TVs, and Silly Putty.
By the way, don't forget Arbitron's own Arbitrend disclaimer:
The estimates provided by Arbitrends v2.0 are derived from the diaries that provide the data in the Radio Market Report and are subject to the limitations stated in that report. Due to these limitations, inherent in Arbitron's methodology, the accuracy of Arbitron audience estimates cannot be determined to any precise mathematical value or definition. Arbitrends is not part of Arbitron's regular syndicated service and is not accredited by the Media Rating Council (MRC).