Can Los Angeles PPM Ratings Scandal Happen In Canada?

On The Kowch Blog looks at PPM ratings scandal in USFrom where I sit On The Kowch, the media loves a great scandal – especially if it’s when radio is caught with its hand in the PPM ratings’ cookie jar like what happened in Los Angeles earlier this year.  The juicy tidbits include: cheating, denials, confirmations, embarrassment, investigation, finger pointing, firing and a lot of headlines in the press. L.A. is America’s largest radio market. $1 billion is spent on radio advertising based on the results of Nielsen’s Portable People Meters (PPM) ratings system.

Nielsen Finds Radio Ratings Mischief In L.A. – headline in MediaDailyNews

“Nielsen’s disclosure that its Los Angeles radio ratings had been compromised prompted the company to disqualify two families from its sample audience,” wrote MediaDailyNews. “The unprecedented breach allowed two Spanish-language radio stations to soar in the ratings.”

One of the families included an unnamed programming executive of Spanish-language radio station KSCA-FM who failed to disclose his connection with the radio station and succeeded in having his family added to the PPM panel.

Nielsen provides PPM ratings in the USThe Nielsen meters pick up audio signals from the radio station people carrying the devices listen to. In this case, the employee, who has since been fired, manipulated the ratings by having all of the family’s PPM meters next to a radio broadcasting KSCA-FM during the morning show. The other PPM household that was disqualified, did the same kind of ratings manipulation by exposing their meters only to KXOS. Family members were big fans of that station’s morning show.

In the April ratings,  KSCA’s morning show “El Bueno, La Mala y El Feo” (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly) was number one, beating out big names that included KIIS-FM (102.7) morning host Ryan Seacrest. The KXOS morning show placed fourth.

When that happened, radio station owners in L.A. started asking: how could two PPM households have such a dramatic effect on ratings in the largest American radio market that has 2,700 PPM households measuring who listens to what radio station and when.

Mark Ramsey on PPM ratings scandalOne of America’s leading radio consultant said it best:

“If, in L.A., two households can have a meaningful impact on the ratings for a market of more than 13 million people, then what does that say?” asked media consultant Mark Ramsey. “Is that fair? Is it accurate? Is it real?”

When Nielsen recalculated the L.A. ratings by removing the two households from its PPM pool, the KSCA morning show dropped to number four and the KXOS morning show plummeted to number 14 in the ratings.

Looking at the overall ratings in the L.A. market, Ratings Experts at Research Director, Inc. looked at the re-calibration of the L.A. data to do a comparison between the “old” April numbers and the “new” ones.

“The first thing we noticed was that there was very little drama at the very top of the 6+ chart. There was a bit of drama outside of the top 10.  KSCA’s share dropped from a 2.8 to a 2.6 share. KXOS  took a big hit, dropping from a 2.5 to a 1.8 share.

“But in the end, the altered numbers had minimal impact on the market as a whole.  With the primary exception of KXOS, most of the players were left relatively unscathed.  The top-five stations 25-54 remained unchanged both in rank and share.”

 Can this happen in Canada?

Jim MacLeod reacts to PPM ratings scandal in the USSo kowchmedia turned to Jim MacLeod, president of Numeris, formerly known as BBM, to ask if this kind of ratings tampering has ever happened in Canada? His answer:

“There have been 3 incidents over the years.  The one of significance was in Calgary radio about two years ago where an employee of a radio station was not truthful to the BBM screener. Another broadcast employee in the market reported their suspicion. BBM reprocessed all data for the entire period the employee was in the sample.  Fortunately there was no significant difference in the data.”

When it did happen in Canada, Jim says radio management responded appropriately and promptly in each case where an employee has been found in the BBM sample.

“It is this partnership between our members management and BBM that sends a very strong message such behaviour hurts everyone.  BBM has a series of automated programs that will help identify abnormal tuning which we have improved constantly over the years, and that focus must continue.”

Here is more of our interview with the president of Numeris, Jim MacLeod

So, How can one household impact ratings so much?

“In any sample smaller demos can have a more significant effect on data, and that can be greater if the panelist is a real radio fan and consumes a lot of radio.  These panelists joining and leaving the panel can have a short term impact, but over time normal panel turnover and normal changes in listeners lives smooth out the data.”

What is BBM policy when it comes to broadcasters living in a PPM household?

 “No person employed in media is permitted to be a BBM panelist or diary keeper.  That simple.”

Numeris does PPM ratings in CanadaOur final question for Jim was about any fallout in Canada with advertisers questioning the credibility of the Numeris PPM rating results?

 “The comments I receive on PPM are generally positive.  Every system has characteristics that need to be understood, but with PPM the immediacy of the data 365 days a year is a huge positive for radio stations.  In diary a dishonest diary keeper can complete multiple days in short order, but with PPM the device needs to hear the radio station in real time (and we have processes to detect abnormal situations) and that is a huge plus for PPM that makes it much harder to introduce deliberate distortion.  PPM is a very secure system with sophisticated diagnostics that instill a high level of confidence in users.”

From where I sit On The Kowch, there will always be someone – whether it be those carrying PPMs or people in radio – who may try to manipulate the ratings process for their own personal reasons. People carrying the meters may think they’re helping their favourite radio station by finding ways to register more listening. Radio people may think it will give them higher ratings, job security and a ratings bonus. In fact, the complete opposite happens.

That’s because at the end of the day, you can’t manipulate the ratings system forever and eventually the real ratings come out. All you’re doing is setting yourself or your  favourite radio station up for a fall when the next ratings come out. No one in the business and especially the advertisers, believe big spikes in the ratings. When the next ratings report comes out and the numbers fall back to where they were, it just confirms those big numbers were bogus.

Steve Kowch ran two of Canada’s largest newstalk radio stations in Montreal and Toronto for more than 14 years. He is the author of 99 Things You Wish You Knew Before Making It BIG In Media