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Industry Applauds Nielsen Headphone Listening Fix, But Wants More.

Programmers and researchers are applauding Nielsen’s remedy to address the decade-old headphone listening measurement conundrum, calling it the “best possible solution” and suggesting it “should improve the usefulness and value of the ratings.” The consensus is that the ratings adjustment is an important first step but that Nielsen still has work ahead to capture all of the growing ways consumers are listening to radio content.

The solution announced last week – which will adjust upward quarter hour estimates for encoded station streams to compensate for headphone listening uncaptured by the PPM – “is the first important step in the right direction to collect a more comprehensive ratings view of earbud, airpod and headphone consumption,” says Jimmy Steal, VP of Brand and Content for Hubbard Radio hot AC WTMX and AC WSHE-FM Chicago. Calling the plan “a welcome acknowledgement that a significant amount of radio listening goes unreported,” the veteran programmer said he’s pleased that Nielsen’s modeling data “will be updated often” so that average quarter hours “stay current with what’s actually occurring in the real world.”

Johnny Chiang, Cox Media Group Houston Director of Operations, also sees it as a step in the right direction. “Is it anywhere close to where we need to be to get a truly accurate representation of headphone listening? No. We’ve got more work to do,” Chiang says.

Consultant Buzz Knight, the former Executive VP of Strategy and Innovation at Beasley Media Group, agrees. He, too, wants Nielsen to go further in the future, such as adjusting for headphone listening by format type. As an active member of the NAB’s COLRAM committee which long lobbied for audience measurement improvement, Knight knows firsthand the work that went into getting the adjustment across the finish line. “We are easily talking six or seven years,” Knight says of the councils and committees that “fought passionately on behalf of the industry and deserve credit for their resilience. Nielsen deserves credit for action,” he adds.

Along with programmers, research experts are giving a thumbs-up but want to see more. “We hope that Nielsen will update their study going forward to reflect increased use of wireless headphones by different demos,” says Marc Greenspan, partner at Research Director, Inc. Dr. Ed Cohen, who has worked on both sides of the measurement aisle in executive-level positions at Cumulus Media and the former Arbitron, sees the industry’s acceptance of statistical modeling of data in the ratings as a leap forward. “Modeling is not new and is used in other media measurement services, including a very small amount in the Nielsen diary service,” he explains. “But from my experience, the industry has generally opposed modeling of data.”

While the upgrade is welcome news, no one expects it to have a huge impact on the ratings. Nielsen said the adjustment could result in a low- to mid-single digit percentage increase in total AQH Persons Using Measured Media (PUMM), the metric that measures total radio listening. “If anyone is expecting the gains in radio listening we saw when Voltair and Enhanced CBET were introduced in the middle of the decade, they will be disappointed,” Cohen predicts.

More Interest In TLR?

The change is expected to cause operators to rethink how they want Nielsen to report their streaming listening. It could cause more stations to opt into Total Line Reporting (TLR), which combines on-air and streaming audiences into one number, for stations that meet Nielsen’s requirements.

“I feel in order to get the best possible representation of how many people a station is reaching in this Nielsen world, we all need to be TLR,” Chiang says. Cohen says station streams “may contribute audience on a more consistent basis, which makes TLR status more valuable.” And Knight suggests the change will motivate more stations to encode their streams since Nielsen is only adjusting the AQH of encoded streams. Many are not encoded. Those that don’t, stand to miss out on an average 61% lift for a standalone stream and a 2-5% increase for a TLR station-stream combo.

Nielsen’ headphone adjustment comes after radio recently reached an important listening milestone. The percentage of AM/FM radio listening taking place online hit 10% for the first time in May 2020, amidst disruptions to media consumption caused by COVID-19, according to the latest Share of Ear update from Edison Research. With Nielsen’s listening estimates soon to reflect more of this consumption, operators might be compelled to devote more time to ensuring their streams sound as good – and are as easy to access everywhere – as the on-air product.

“We’ve learned since COVID that in homes and offices without ‘regular radios,’ consumers are relying even more on streaming their favorite stations and shows on smartphones, tablets, and smart speakers,” says Jacobs Media President Fred Jacobs. “Now that Nielsen is recognizing and accounting for headphone listening, the value of a station’s stream just became more tangible. Jacobs also suggests that programmers set aside one day a week to monitor the stream, including the ability to access it on multiple devices, overall quality and the seamlessness of breaks.

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