The West Coast radio world was rocked in mid-June by revelations that a Univision executive had manipulated the ratings to boost a Spanish-language talk show. The scandal, which cost the employee his job, rattled confidence in the Nielsen system. The company has been scrambling to reassure networks and advertisers alike of the security of its system ever since.
A Nielsen representative confirmed that the company, which dominates the domestic U.S. ratings industry, has held conversations with concerned clients. “Nielsen is committed to upholding the highest standards of data integrity in our panels, and we are working closely with the Audio Advisory Council, the Media Rating Council and the radio industry to minimize the risk of reoccurrence,” the rep said in a statement to Billboard. “Additionally, Nielsen will be launching an education and awareness campaign with the broadcast industry to remind them of current guidelines.”
Nielsen also is taking steps to adjust the size of the audience samples it uses — increasing them by 12 percent cumulatively across all markets in which they use in-home devices, called Portable People Meters (PPMs), to measure ratings.
The question now discussed in the broadcast world: Is that damage control enough?
“This has to somewhat reflect negatively on the radio industry,” says Michael Gould, president of Eastlan Ratings, a competitor to Nielsen that provides radio audience measurement data collected from phone surveys and e-diaries with over 450 subscribing radio stations in more than 90 markets in the United States. The Los Angeles scandal, he adds, could influence ad buyers “to go in a different direction altogether, such as cable or the Internet.” (Gould acknowledges that since acquiring Arbitron in 2013, Nielsen’s grip on the market is tight, and that he and other rivals are like David going up against Goliath.)
The scandal started when Univision Communications’ KSCA-FM (101.9) suddenly shot to the top of the Spanish-language radio ratings in Los Angeles in April, vaulting over competitors it typically lags behind. A subsequent probe showed that a KSCA executive, who had access to Nielsen’s PPM devices, had manipulated them to boost the station’s showing.
As a result, Nielsen postponed the release of its May numbers while it recalculated both April and May. The financial stakes are high; the Los Angeles market, the nation’s second-largest, involves millions of dollars in ad revenue.
“The sample is just too small,” says Bill Tanner, a radio consultant. “Anytime one family can have such a big effect on the total market share, it speaks poorly for a company doing the ratings.”
Adds Hispanic marketing and media analyst Adam R. Jacobson: “This is completely irresponsible. There are a lot of questions around the Univision employee’s motives,” adding that he praised Univision president Jose Valle for swiftly terminating the culprit.
“A radio station employee being related to a Nielsen participant seriously undermines the industry and is unacceptable,” said Valle in a statement, adding that the network is cooperating with Nielsen. (The fired executive has not been publicly identified.)
The full impact of the scandal may not be known for some time. But it has taken a toll in the short run. “It’s an injustice,” says one well-known L.A. radio personality, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Someone really needs to put these cheaters in check”