Rolls out 'portable people meter.'

Making good on its word to forge ahead with a portable people meter-based radio ratings service, Arbitron announced Tuesday it would begin rolling out PPM ratings to the top 50 markets beginning this July with Houston. The rollout plan calls for the top 10 markets by Fall 2008 and the rest of the top 50 by 2010-2011. Philadelphia, the site of the first PPM test, will be the second PPM market in the rollout.

A portable, pager-sized device, the PPM would replace the current diary-based service, which has been used as the currency to buy and sell radio since 1965. The new passive, multimedia, electronic methodology, promises to deliver ratings faster, more frequently, and more accurately than the current system.

The news of the rollout follows less than two weeks after Nielsen Media Research said no to a joint venture with Arbitron to commercialize a portable people meter-based ratings service for TV, paving the way for Arbitron to pursue its “radio first” strategy for the PPM.

It also comes at a time when Arbitron is faced with the rumblings of a competing electronic measurement service from MediaAudit/Ipsos. In the early stages of development, MediaAudit/Ipsos is in the process of setting up a technical test for a smart-cell phone-based ratings service in Houston, where Arbitron has been demonstrating the PPM since July 2005. On Monday, Radio One, which refused to participate in Arbitron’s Houston trial, agreed to encode its signals for the MediaAudit/Ipsos test.

Industry support for the PPM has been mixed, but predictable, reminiscent of the TV industry’s transition to people meters. Sentiment has been split between buyers and sellers -- the agencies and advertisers who see diaries as antiquated in an increasingly digital and fragmented media landscape, and stations, who balk at the PPM’s 40 to 65 percent cost increase. Only two radio groups, Spanish Broadcasting System and Beasley Broadcast Group have signed for the PPM service, along with 18 of the nation’s major national and regional agencies and Wendy’s International, representing more than 75 percent of the advertising spot dollars.

Radio groups that haven’t signed are expected to hold off until the completion of Clear Channel’s request for proposals for an electronic radio ratings service, formed last June soon after Arbitron began seeking financial commitments for the PPM. Last week CC’s evaluation team narrowed its choices down to three research firms: Arbitron, MediaAudit/Iposos, and MediaMark Research.

After testing and refining the PPM in the U.S. for the past five years and completing a Media Ratings Council audit in February, Arbitron said its service is now ready to go.

“We know one thing from our own experience with the radio industry during the development of the PPM: these sorts of ‘next-generation’ explorations always take far more time than anyone ever anticipates. We decided to move forward because there are important benefits that the rollout of the PPM is able to bring to radio today,” said Steve Morris, president and CEO of Arbitron. “Now that we are finally able to make a commitment to roll out the PPM for radio, we anticipate that our customers will be more willing to make a commitment to the PPM as well.”