Nielsen clients got on a conference call today with the company to address the Voltair controversy — and Nielsen addressed it by saying it doesn’t support the Voltair unit. Company reps even went so far as to say they think it may introduce artifacts and noise into your audio stream. They also said they’re making enhancements to the PPM service, to be introduced in the near future, and the Voltair is unnecessary.
Following the call, Ed Ryan and I spoke with Nielsen EVP/Local Media Client Solutions Matt O’Grady and SVP/Product Leadership Jennifer Huston to get some clarity, since press was not allowed on the call. (Though we managed to hear every word of it, and the NAB and RAB were invited.)
So after all the tension about what Nielsen would do, they did pretty much as predicted: Nothing.
By saying they don’t support Voltair, Nielsen is avoiding unhappy customers who don’t have it and may not want to spend $15,000 to buy it. They said they plan enhancements — they said these enhancements have been in the works for a year or more, though they hadn’t been publicly mentioned until this call — that will adjust the PPM service so that all things are equal and Voltair isn’t needed. But if the Voltair is unnecessary right now, what issues are these enhancements addressing? The Voltair seems to have revealed that something needs to be changed.
Note that Nielsen is not telling stations they cannot use the Voltair. They are basically saying that it makes no difference other than possibly introducing some negative side effects into a station’s audio chain (such as static, popping, and echoes). But if those problems were so evident that they could drive listeners away, no one would be using Voltair, would they?
Nielsen also told us they have no way to tell if the Voltair is really making a difference in ratings because they don’t know who uses them and would have no way to accurately measure the effect, since ratings can also be affected by programming changes and other factors. Really? The world’s leading measurement company can’t figure out a way to find out who’s using Voltair and see if it makes a difference? What about the artifacts they claim the Voltair puts into the signal? That would be one way to reveal who’s using the technology. But certainly Nielsen can figure out a way.
Though this response was the predicted, safe route for Nielsen, the issue does not go away. Why not?
- They did not answer the question of whether stations benefit by using it.
- They indicated they are upgrading their system in the future, which gives me the impression that they think maybe Voltair does help. Otherwise, why are upgrades needed to make things more equal?
- They are not supporting the box, yet not insisting stations not use it — and also claiming all things need to be equal and that the coming upgrades will ensure equality. So does that mean that all things are not equal for the next six months or a year until the upgrades are in place?
- They are not insisting on finding out who is using Voltair and threatening to delist them. They’re apparently not even trying to find out and note which stations are using it.
The drama will continue and stations will continue to believe the Voltair unit must be making a difference. I can’t imagine not buying one if I knew I might possibly gain an advantage for the next six to 12 months until Nielsen enhances the PPM system. And I suspect that people will continue to use them even after that.
The Nielsen execs declined to comment when we asked about legal action against Voltair’s manufacturer. But is it a possibility? Of course, but so is an industry-wide class action suit against Nielsen over the deficiencies in the system — deficiencies implied when they say enhancements are coming. And who knows, maybe Nielsen will make those enhancements by doing a deal with Voltair. Too soon to tell.
In the midst of all this, we must not forget a few mission critical points.
Until this is resolved, the PPM system will be questioned by radio stations and advertisers alike. And having unsure advertisers is, to say the least, not good for radio. I’m not sure that “enhancements” will take this issue away as long as broadcasters believe the Voltair is helping them.
Second, what broadcasters want to believe to be true may not be. Did ratings go up because of Voltair? If the world-standard measurement company won’t take this on, then the assumption will be that it made a difference, even though that difference may have been entirely based on programming changes or other factors. Great programming does still make a difference. (See Randy Kabrich’s compelling argument here.)
Third, all this is an issue because some broadcasters and formats that once had great ratings suddenly had poor ratings once PPM came into play. These people will never believe that PPM reflects listening more accurately than a diary method because it was their stations that were hurt. Just like the people who are winning now believe the diary method was flawed and PPM measurement is accurate.
Nielsen’s conference call and subsequent press call to us offered the expected corporate platitudes. But Nielsen is in a bit of a box because no matter what they say, they open themselves up to litigation from customers or possibly Voltair itself. Meanwhile, broadcasters will believe what they want to believe, and for the time being, there is no downside to investing in Voltair. It might work, it might not. No one is offering proof. This continues to be a high-drama hot potato that won’t go away anytime soon.