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Who cares about “Total Audience Measurement”?

“Total Audience Measurement” (TAM).  That’s Arbitron’s term for their in-the-works scheme to count your listeners on whatever platform they’re listening to your station (on radio or online) all in one tidy report.

I’ve been thinking a lot about TAM lately, and the closer I look the more questions I have about this latest initiative from our friends in Columbia who have profiting hand over fist from the radio industry even as that industry itself continues to struggle.

What problem does “Total Audience Measurement” solve?

Presumably the problem is that traditional ratings fail to accurately count the listeners who stream your stations online.  In other words, Arbitron is acknowledging, the universal measurement tool called PPM is not accurate enough to measure streaming listening because there aren’t enough meters in circulation amongst enough people and virtually all listening to any radio done with earbuds will be invisible to those PPM devices.

So “Total Audience Measurement” solves Arbitron’s problem first and foremost.  Because counting actual listeners is way more accurate than estimating that listening with a too-tiny sample.

“Total Audience Measurement” also presumably solves an agency problem, since the agencies seem to say that they’d like to see all the listening in one report because agencies are congenitally lazy and the traditional ones don’t understand digital.

Finally, “Total Audience Measurement” is supposed to solve a broadcaster problem for the same reason it solves the agency one.  It provides a fuller accounting of listening all in one place.

Big deal.

Let’s assume it makes sense to lump streaming listening in with regular listening and sell it as one bulk mass (it doesn’t, but that’s a different post).

What problem does “Total Audience Measurement” solve for pure-plays like Pandora?

Pandora doesn’t have an audience measurement problem.  Pandora doesn’t depend on the limited abilities of PPM.  Pandora already has its “Total Audience Measurement” right now.

Sure, you might argue, but the imprimatur of Arbitron provides hypnotic persuasive power among agencies who trust Arbitron because they have to trust somebody.  And for Pandora to be shown alongside your stations and others in the same rankers would be good for Pandora, good for agencies, but maybe not so good for you (showing the agencies a larger listening menu where the shares still add to 100 rarely is).

The agencies want to see all this as “a radio buy” and Arbitron wants to reinforce that there is no fundamental difference between listening to Pandora and to radio.  Forget the links and the images and the video and the personally identifiable characteristics – let’s make a regular radio buy on Pandora!

Meanwhile it’s hard to imagine that Arbitron’s biggest clients will ever support a report which gives equal space to Pandora and all other radio alternatives “simply because” the ears go there, too.

Indeed, the very term “Total Audience Measurement” seems aimed at a constituency whose problem is that they don’t have all their measures in one place.  In other words, the broadcaster and the agency who seeks to make traditional radio buys.  “Total Audience Measurement” is not about total audience, it’s about total BROADCAST RADIO audience across all platforms.  Because that’s who Arbitron serves and what its agencies buy.

Pandora, Slacker, et. al. do not have a “Total Audience Measurement” problem.  Their only motivation to be in such a report would be to be thrust in front of the same old-school buyers that buy radio the same old-school way. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but its very hard to believe that Arbitron and its largest radio clients would hand over that precious real estate in the spirit of “Total Audience Measurement.”

So what’s the bottom line?  It’s that we are experiencing a magic trick.  Arbitron professes to “fairly represent” all listening, but it literally has no incentive to do that because its largest clients have no incentive for it to be done.

Arbitron’s incentive is not to to report “Total Audience” but to limit it so that “radio” will now and forever be defined as a world of listening controlled by Arbitron’s biggest clients.

Just watch and see.

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