Arbitron Adding Significant New Feature to PPM

logo_NAB09JPEG.jpgIn the flurry of press announcements heralding the start of the NAB Show in Las Vegas today, Harmonic Inc. and Arbitron Inc. announced the use of Harmonic's Rhozet™ Carbon Coder universal transcoding technology in Arbitron's PPM media research services. In a quote from the press release, Taymoor Arshi, Chief Technology Officer at Arbitron, said:

"Our goal is to offer our customers new measurement solutions using our Portable People Meter technology. Our integration with Rhozet Carbon Coder helps by providing customers with the ability to prepare their content within their current workflows for inclusion in our media research services."

The press release further states:

The Carbon Coder software will be used in production pipelines to embed an inaudible code into the audio portion of entertainment and advertising content. This code can be detected by the Arbitron Portable People Meter™ (PPM™).

What does this mean for the PPM service? Theoretically, any digitally processed content - programming, commercials, and so on - can be encoded with this technology. Currently, a special "PPM™ Encoder" is required to insert the sub-audible code in the content, typically in the audio chain of the broadcaster. While perfect for measurement of media outlet audience, the current technology does not allow for the direct measurement of specific program elements like commercials and features. The Rhozet Carbon Coder will allow Arbitron to measure audience levels for all encoded media content - regardless of the source. For example, to measure exposure to a specific commercial or album track, you would need to know the exact time that the content aired on each outlet. You would then need to cross-tab this information with the PPM™ rating for that exact time, for every outlet. While not impossible, the current state of reporting of this information is quite challenging. One company, MediaMonitors (a division of RCS, which is owned by Clear Channel) has built a business around this process with ground-breaking products like Audience Reaction™ and Mscore™. MediaMonitors accomplishes this by electronically monitoring radio stations, storing "fingerprints" of the content in their database, and then cross-tabbing with the minute-by-minute PPM™ data. The power of MediaMonitor's solution is that it does not require encoding of the content prior to broadcast. The weakness - in the new world of encoded content that Arbitron and Harmony are creating - is that for encoded content, you will be able to determine exposure whether or not the outlet itself is encoding. An advertiser would be able to have a window on exposure to a specific commercial - whether video or audio - across all platforms that are measurable by the PPM™ device. This is very powerful, and when fully matured, the technology will have the potential to change the media marketplace in very significant ways.

Imagine, if you will, a video that is originally aired on a broadcast TV network. The audio is re-broadcast on radio stations around the country. Clips of the video are posted on YouTube. Elements of the video are edited and placed in various podcasts. Re-runs air on cable networks. Jon Stewart airs a clip. You get the idea - all of the exposure to this content will be measurable in PPM™ markets if the original content is encoded with the Arbitron/Rhoznet Carbon Code.

This relatively quiet announcement at a trade show generally focused on broadcast engineering will have a profound impact on the entire business of media. And, it's another "shot across the bow" by Arbitron to it's rival, Nielsen.

Music Scheduling and the State of Radio

Computer-based music scheduling programs have been around for over 30 years. I know, because my first Program Director and I collaborated on a very rudimentary one for the Apple II back in the late '70s. Soon, there were quite a few commercially available systems available, including the venerable Selector.

Today, I was researching some new opportunities and I read an article on Jeff Pollack's site by Pat Welsh about stations moving from DOS versions of music scheduling systems to windows-based versions. This article was posted on December 23, 2008 Huh?
When you look at how many things have changed in radio over the past few years, it’s stunning to realize that one of the most important tasks, music scheduling, has changed so little. Many stations, especially in the U.S., still use legacy DOS-based programs (elsewhere around the world, especially in markets where music scheduling has only recently been introduced, stations are more likely to use Windows based systems).

But things have started to change in this area, too. Many stations have converted or are converting to new, Windows-based releases of various music scheduling systems. Besides the new interface and the ability to do things like changing the color scheme, doing copy and paste, customizing screens and other Windows type functions, under the hood there’s a lot more going on.

Of course, it's absolutely true. For various reasons, many (most?) established US stations have not upgraded their music scheduling tools to even 1990s' technology. I won't get into the reasons here, except to say that it's partly an unintended consequence of consolidation.

This has put established radio stations at a decided disadvantage over the years. It's a creeping problem; if you don't upgrade your software today, you save money today. However, you also suffer the consequences of an inferior product on the air. This is not immediately apparent, but over the years the problem becomes more and more audible to your listeners - if not to you. And - by the way - this isn't a case for "DOS" over "Windows" (I can't believe that I am writing that in 2009) as much as it is a case for providing the best, most effective tools for your team. As a radio software guy, I can tell you with no equivocation that relying on an old platform (even if it's updated frequently) for more than 7 years or so will cripple your ability to accomplish what is really possible with the tools at hand. This kind of inertia also creates a disincentive for your software provider to collaborate with you and their other customers to create new, cutting edge, improvements for your software. If you are not constantly pushing them to innovate by staying current with their their latest software update, the vendor will have little if no reason to provide a new version - especially when there is one extremely dominant provider.

What's the result? Well - stations cannot take advantage of the incredible power of current technology in providing music scheduling capabilities. For example, with today's technologies, I see a music scheduling product that takes into account "on the fly" research from social networking sites, iTunes, Amazon, Pandora and so on while providing a user interface that is based on User Centered Design principles rather than the baggage of the past.

And - why on earth does a music scheduling system need to be an application that is installed on your PC? This is the perfect application for a web-based, hosted solution that is built using a powerful back-end technology running on multiple redundant servers. Imagine if your music scheduling program had a feature as powerful as Amazon's recommendation engine - a feature that could take the input of tens of millions of listeners and provide guidance for scheduling your music? This isn't possible on a traditional "PC-based" platform, but would be absolutely possible on a using AJAX and LAMP in a web-based environment. Want off-line capability in case of an internet outage? No problem - technologies today allow offline use of web apps - check out Google Gears.

This same logic holds true for other software tools in your station, such as automation. Many stations are running on automation systems (reliably, I must say) from the last century while vendors have released systems that are ready for the challenges of the 21st. Yes, the music still gets played, but your station can sound so much better with a contemporary automation platform!

Check to see if your current vendor has a contemporary tool available to you. Ask hard questions about the platform, its compatibility with your current system and its future product roadmap. If they don't have a contemporary system or you aren't satisfied with their answers, then switch vendors!

Don't procrastinate on this - your new competitors are using the latest and greatest technologies to compete with you.

In order to compete in the media environment of the second decade of the 21st century, you needs the tools tomorrow. Get rid of your old, dusty programming software systems and invest in those that will bring you immediate benefit today.