We know who used Voltair to boost Spring 2015 PPM Ratings

Steve Kowch blog photoFrom where I sit On The Kowch, it was only a matter of time before radio stations in Canada would follow the lead of 600 American broadcasters who use the new technology known as Voltair to boost PPM rating results. Sources tell me that four of the biggest radio groups in Canada secretly used Voltair between March and the end of May of this year on some of their radio stations to boost their 2015 Spring PPM rating results.

“It definitely impacted the stations using Voltair,” one radio source told me. “Evanov Communications, Corus, Newcap and Bell tested the technology. Newcap had Voltair on most of their stations. Bell tested it out on one of their AM stations.”

2015SP Voltair controversryThe radio stations in Canada equipped with Voltair had major variances in the ratings and that caught the attention of Numeris that runs the PPM ratings system in Canada. Numeris asked broadcasters to turn off Voltair until the middle of August so that it can conduct a full test on the technology. All broadcast companies in Canada agreed to respect the 60 day moratorium on the use of Voltair.

Broadcasters in Canada and south of the border are very tight lipped about using Voltair and how it impacts on their ratings. Each radio station has a distinct watermark code or tone that is transmitted to Personal People Meters carried by radio listeners who agree to participate in the ratings process by Numeris in Canada and Nielsen in the United States.

However, ratings can be negatively impacted when those tones or codes aren’t picked up by the PPM units, creating a digital impression that no one is listening to that station until the tones or codes can be picked up by the meter again.

“This is a very sensitive issue because many broadcasters believe we have been using a less than perfect technology to date,” says our source. “Voltair seems to be great technology. Voltair seems to almost purify those tones or codes to make it easier to be captured by the Personal People Meters. Great news for radio if true. Needs to be embraced publicly once Numeris releases its findings. I am expecting to see positive results from Numeris testing. It will create a level playing field when Numeris takes a position. Then all broadcasters can decide what to do.”

Numeris President Jim MacLeod responds to questions we emailed him about the Voltair controversy

Any idea on how big an impact Voltair had on the ratings by the stations using the device? On the Telos Alliance website it says ratings increased in TSL, AQH and cume by about 5%. In the US they say all markets had stations using Voltair. They estimate there are 600 units in use in the U.S. 

Jim MacLeod, president of Numeris

Jim MacLeod

We have no direct knowledge of the situation in the US. We have been able to do some analysis on data from stations we feel may have had Voltair units and what I will say is that the effect in Canada with Average Minute audiences seems, as expected, greater than the impact in the US with Average Quarter Hours (a station must have 5 non-consecutive minutes in a quarter hour in the US to receive credit).  We cannot be sure that the analysis was done on stations using Voltair, and that is why we need an independent test as outlined in our Board motion.

Why the 60 day ban in Canada? Is there something in the Numeris agreement for clients that they can’t add technology like Voltair to boost the PPM tone?

It is Numeris view that the station Encoding Agreement sets out permissible uses of the Numeris encoding units.  Each PPM station has a copy.  There was no need to explore that as the Board passed a motion asking stations to pause use of Voltair for 60 days, and we believe all stations have complied.  The 60 days is simply to restore the level playing field in Canada that existed before Voltair, and give Numeris and its technology partners time to test encoding and reach a conclusion on future steps.

Can Numeris legally prevent the use of Voltair?

Encoding is part of s system that creates audience data, and I believe Numeris has control over that system.  I believe the Canadian industry, broadcasters, advertisers and agencies, values that independence.

What does Numeris hope to find or determine with its study on how Voltair can improve ratings for stations using the unit?  

The test is not on Voltair, which may participate or not (ultimately their choice), but on PPM encoding (which has undergone multiple third party tests in the past) to determine if changes in the encoding assumptions (no alteration in station audio profile, no code breakthrough meaning the code may be heard by some listeners) may be changed in the broadcast world in 2015.  If encoding assumptions are changed, the Numeris encoders could insert codes differently, or a third party solution might be adopted (subject to our agreements with our technology partners).  One key requirement is ALL stations will deploy the same encoding solution to preserve the level playing field.

Interesting that the Numeris ban is for 60 days …. the ban could be lifted in time for the Fall ratings. Was that part of the negotiations to have stations stop using Voltair?

There were no negotiations with stations.  The Numeris Board passed a motion, which we believe has been complied with.  The 60 days is simply Numeris’ view of a reasonable test period, and that will be extended if necessary.  They key point is any change in encoding will be an industry change, and that will be when the Board believes it is appropriate.

In the States, Nielson hasn’t banned the units … what are you hearing about the impact there on a station’s ratings with Voltair? 

No direct knowledge of the US situation or why Nielsen has acted as it has.

I don’t understand how this is cheating? Using new technology to beef up the PPM tone of a station. It’s not like in a ballot market someone gets hold of ballots or encourages people how to fill them out.  

Numeris logo replacing BBM logoInteresting comparison.  Why would a station install any device that alters PPM codes without consultation with the owner of the IP and not disclose it has done so, but could benefit if the device does improve numbers for a single station?  In Canada share of audience seems to be the most important determinant of revenue, so is it OK for a station to alter PPM codes in secret and maybe improve its share?   PPM codes exist within a complex system, and if a station or stations feel there is some defect in the PPM encoding algorithms would it not be logical to ask the PPM operator to investigate and report to the industry?  Every broadcaster has access through technical committees, the Radio Executive Committee and the Board to processes to improve our system for the good of the industry.  It might be interesting to ask a station who deployed Voltair to describe how the PPM encoding is deficient, how Voltair can remedy that, and what effect altering PPM codes could have on other stations (including television that shares the system).  The fact is Numeris, the operator of the PPM technology in Canada since 2004 is not aware of a single verified complaint about the PPM encoding system not crediting audiences, has tested PPM encoding and audience crediting in controlled tests with no issues found, and has no knowledge of what Voltair does or how it does it other than it alters already encoded material.  The chatter is about “more codes” but code counts are only one factor in a sophisticated processing system.  Surely if there is some improvement in our measurement technology the industry deserves fair and full testing, not unilateral action by individual stations.  That is the level playing field the Numeris board believes needs to be preserved.

It may not be a level playing field with the have and have not stations using Voltair but isn’t that up to the station to decide if they don’t want to invest in the new technology. 

Stations invest in no technology to be measured correctly and in my view should not ever be required to do so.  To date every single piece of technology or material in the measurement system has been provided by Numeris at no cost.  That is called a level playing field.  Numeris pays for the equipment and the diaries and everything else, and each station has exactly the same equipment and the same diary deployed in all markets.  Individual stations selecting what they feel is best for them is a sea change from how balanced and independent measurement is conducted.

In the U.S., broadcasters are in open revolt against Nielsen. Many American broadcasters believe Voltair is proving them right about the inefficiencies of the PPM ratings system.

One of those critics is Richard Harker from Harker Research in Raleigh, NC who writes the Radio InSights Blog.  His June 19th blog: Voltair Case Study #3: Shares Nearly Double deals with a radio station that uses Voltair and was willing to share the PPM data but not be identified.

“To determine the impact of Voltair we compared listenership for two weeks in 2014 and the same two weeks in 2015. The days were chosen at random. We had not seen the data before choosing the days,” wrote Harker.

“We focused on one quarter-hour, fifteen minutes of data. The quarter-hour was chosen randomly. We didn’t cherry-pick this particular quarter-hour. We did, however, look at other quarter-hours after the fact to see how similar they were. They varied somewhat, but this quarter-hour appears representative of the entire show.

“That said,2015SP graph before and with voltair the graph tells the story. Listenership significantly increased after the station installed Voltair, not by a little but a lot. Each average minute in the chosen quarter-hour rose. Much of the growth was fueled by fewer zero listener minutes.”

“The 2014 shows had large gaps with zero listeners that might last for three or more minutes at a time (the red bars in the graph) The 2015 shows with Voltair still had occasional zeros, but they were fewer in number as well as shorter in duration (the green bars in the graph),” wrote Harker.

“The purpose of Voltair is to increase the likelihood that codes will be strong enough to be consistently counted by decoders. This should manifest itself as fewer drop-outs–fewer zeros–that indicate the possibility that decoders are missing listeners.

“So how did it work out for the station? Show TSL rose 50% and cume rose 60%. This led to a nearly 90% increase in share. The show almost doubled its numbers.”

Harker ends his blog with this challenge to Nielsen:

“It is Nielsen’s job to prove that gains with Voltair are not real, that the box is creating listeners rather than helping decoders capture listeners that meters would have otherwise missed. Unless it can prove that PPM today is capturing all listening and Voltair is artificially inflating the numbers, Nielsen has no right to tell radio stations that they cannot use Voltair. Nielsen should put accuracy ahead of saving face.”

From where I sit On The Kowch,  I don’t think you can put the Voltair genie back in the bottle. Radio is going through tough times these days. You can’t blame broadcast owners if they want to invest $15,000US to buy a Voltair unit to boost ratings and generate more sales revenue. Even in sports, a level playing field doesn’t stop teams from using every trick up their sleeves to beat the competition.

Click here for results of the Spring 2015 PPM ratings in five markets across Canada and the Spring 2015 ballot ratings for the rest of the country.

Steve Kowch ran two of Canada’s largest newstalk radio stations in Montreal and Toronto for more than 14 years. He was National Director of NewsTalk Radio Programming for Astral Media. He was a professor at two of Toronto’s leading broadcast schools and is the author of  99 Things You Wish You Knew Before Making It BIG In Media  Today Steve is Canada’s leading media coach at kowchmedia helping emerging radio talent chase their dream to become great broadcasters.

Contact Steve at 647-521-6397 or email steve@kowchmedia.com