Storyline 2013: Nielsen, Arbitron, and the ratings jigsaw puzzle

Storyline 2013 02Radio ratings were simpler before the Internet started streaming audio. That’s not to say that pre-Internet ratings necessarily delivered precise audience measurements. But when broadcast was the stream, at least the medium was neatly delineated. In the last 15 years the term radio has been stretched to cover new dimensions of meaning and platforms of listening. Ratings have not kept up. The result, from the perspective of online music services and advertisers, is a fragmented and incomplete view of the overall listening market. This issue became more prominent in 2013 as Internet listening became more popular.

When Nielsen, which engages in audience measurement across many consumer platforms,  acquired Arbitron in September, creating Nielsen Audio, visions of unification sprang into the minds of observers. The hope of cross-platform audience measurement was partly founded on the possible resolution of political roadblocks. Pandora VP Dominic Paschel recently cited conflict of interest in Arbitron’s historical exclusion online streams in its ratings product: “Arbitron was not going to necessarily validate [our leading local market positions], simply because it would be biting the hand that fed them, which was broadcast radio. It was a bit of a conflict of interest.”

Of all Internet radio brands, Pandora arguably has the most to gain by inclusion in holistic audience measurement, and has campaigned for inclusion. But the company has not passively waited. Pandora is included in Triton Digital‘s Webcast Metrics monthly report, and, more controversially, issues its own monthly “share of U.S. radio listening” statistic based on a proprietary (undisclosed) measuring formula. Performing its own ratings service allows Pandora to insert a marketshare number into the conversation around listener migration to Internet-delivered stations, motivating push-back from broadcast groups that dispute Pandora’s figures. (Pandora claimed an 8.4% share of U.S. radio listening in November.)

Meanwhile, Nielsen has shown at least one small indication of willingness to wrap its arms around online listening. In October it announced the addition of online radio reruns (under certain conditions) to its measurement suite. An inching movement toward cross-platform holism, to be sure, but Jennifer Lane noted in her Audio4cast blog: “I’m sure this is the first of many changes that Nielsen will make to its measurement of audio.”

The need for cross-platform audience intelligence is augmented by the inclusion of radio-like features in music services that were founded as jukeboxes, like Spotify and Rhapsody. Following a trend toward lean-back listening, both services emphasized “radio” components of their desktop and mobile apps. Pandora, iTunes Radio, Slacker, Songza, and others always pinned their user values on lean-back listening curated by some combination of human selection and algorithmic recommendation. So, even though random-access jukeboxes like Spotify and Rhapsody embody different user propositions, their “radio” features work pretty much identically to inherently radio-like players like Pandora and iTunes Radio. In other words, online listening looks more and more like radio listening (and let’s not forget the aptly-named Rdio), and several industry stakeholders would benefit from a comprehensive ratings landscape that included the terrestrial and Internet sides of the fence.

Brad Hill