Pressured by a group of Hispanic broadcasters and Inner City Broadcasting in New York City, New York attorney general Andrew Cuomo has initiated an investigation into Arbitron's portable people meter (PPM) system. Arbitron received a subpoena Tuesday (Sept. 9) from the NYAG's office requesting PPM documents dating back to 2003. The research firm has until Sept. 19 to produce the paperwork.

The broadcasters seeking government intervention fear lower ratings and lower revenue with the PPM, claiming Arbitron's methodology undercounts African-Americans and Hispanics.

The same group of broadcasters also petitioned the FCC to open an investigation. The FCC, which regulates the nation's airwaves, last week set comment dates about whether it should investigate. Arbitron has maintained the FCC does not have jurisdiction over media research firms.

Arbitron is set to commercialize the PPM service as the ratings currency next month in New York and seven other top markets. It currently has two PPM markets in Houston and Philadelphia. Only the Houston market has received accreditation with the Media Rating Council.

"Because of Arbitron's virtual monopoly over ratings in the radio industry, a significant and improper decline in ratings under the PPM methodology could cause minority stations to suffer drastic reductions in advertising revenues. This, in turn, could severely harm minority broadcasting in New York," wrote Cuomo in a Sept. 9 letter to Steve Morris, chairman, president and CEO of Arbitron, and Timothy Smith, executive VP and chief legal officer, legal & business affairs.

In response, Arbitron reiterated its argument that the PPM service is more accurate than the diary. "The PPM radio ratings service is fair, reliable and fully represents the diversity of New York radio markets. The media industry has demanded a more precise and credible measurement tool for radio just as they have for other media," the company said in a statement.

Arbitron also implied that government involvement could undercut the role and importance of the Media Rating Council, created at the direction of Congress 40 years ago to audit and accredit media ratings services. The NYAG's exhaustive list of requested documents included information and reports pertaining to the Media Rating Council.

"The media industry should be concerned about the attempts to supplant or short-circuit the Media Rating Council accreditation process," Arbitron said.

Executive director Jim Winston of the National Association of Black Owned Broadcasters, which last week was part of the PPM Coalition that asked the FCC to open an inquiry into Arbitron's use of the PPM, said in a statement, "We are very pleased with the Attorney General's decision to initiate a formal investigation. We have been trying to get this matter appropriately resolved with Arbitron for over a year and a half. We believe this intervention by the State of New York will provide the kind of attention this matter requires.

"NABOB, like the rest of the radio industry, wants an electronic rating service. However, we need a service that measures our actual audience and provides reliable and credible information. At this point, government intervention is necessary to stop the rollout of PPM until Arbitron gets it right, and we are gratified that our public officials have taken up this issue."

Additional reporting by Julie Gidlow