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How People Meters Can Kill You

A No-Nonsense Marketing Smart Tip June 29, 2004

I’m all for People Meters as a ratings tool. Especially compared to the antiquated and clunky diary. Yeah, the winners and losers will be different, but that’s a topic for a different article. Here I want to tackle something less discussed but just as important: Arbitron’s argument that the PPM can help you make minute-by-minute programming decisions.

The Logic Goes Like This…

PPM’s offer minute-by-minute feedback on who’s listening to what. When you overlay what a station plays on who starts, stops, and stays listening, you get a good view of what songs and other station elements are, in Arbitron lingo, “sticky.” That is, what programming content is good and what’s bad.

Let’s assume there’s enough sample to make programming conclusions – which I doubt there is. After all, in Arbitron’s Philadelphia test there were 789 average daily panelists being surveyed. Even if they’re all listening at once to any of Philly’s 26 above-the-line stations, that’s only about 30 persons per station. And since there are lots of reasons people will tune in and out besides what the station does to provoke it, how much reliability does this data really have? But let’s assume it’s completely reliable. Then why shouldn’t you use it to program by?

Great Radio isn’t Minute-by-Minute

Great and successful Radio stations – in fact, all great and successful media brands – are much more than the sum total of every minute of programming. They are emotional relationships with the audience forged over time. To paraphrase Saatchi & Saatchi CEO Kevin Roberts, using PPM as a programming aid will give you a station that relies on the accumulation of past experiences rather than the potential of future ones.

Arbitron’s data shows that shorter songs have less tune-out than longer ones and more familiar songs less tune-out than new ones. Taken to its not at all laughable extreme, the programming implication is to play only familiar, short songs. Never anything new – and certainly never Stairway to Heaven. It’s hard to imagine such a strategy creating compelling radio, but it’s easy to imagine it creating least-objectionable radio. But is that why listeners tune in KROQ? Is that why they sample Howard Stern? Abusing research to round off every edge will pave the road to mediocrity. Commodities love company.

For Proof, Look to TV

One of the funniest shows on TV is BBC’s Golden Globe winner, “The Office.” Recently, the forthcoming American version received NBC’s lowest test scores for any comedy series EVER. But what’s flawed, the show or the system? Anyone who watches new Fall shows come and go by the schedule-load knows the answer to that one.

A great morning show or a great radio station is an alchemy of magic moments constructed from the raw materials of “genius” and “just okay.” Getting the former requires some of the latter. Every minute of the Sopranos isn’t great, but the show itself is. Every second on KROQ isn’t great, but the station itself is. When you obsess on minute-by-minute feedback you’re substituting science for art and mistaking the trees for the forest. As the philosopher said, “Be careful lest in casting out your devils that you cast out the best thing that’s in you.”

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