Media Ratings – Farce or Sophistry?

Posted on 23/09/2011

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“Abracadabra!” A schoolteacher was discussing different jobs done by the parents of his students. When she called on Sammy in the back row, she asked, “And what does your father do, Sammy?”

“Oh, he’s a magician,” Sammy replied.

“Really,” says the teacher, “And what’s his best trick?”

“His best trick is sawing people in half.”

“Wonderful!” exclaimed the teacher. “Tell me, are there any more children in your family?”

“Yes ma’am, I have a half brother and two half sisters.”

 

I’ve often argued about the authenticity, or otherwise of reports that emanate from the researches credited to media research firms in Nigeria. In my lengthy career as a broadcast practitioner I have always regarded such releases with a little more than a pinch of salt. Who authorises these ratings, anyway? And how wise is the dependence on these ratings reviews by advertisers/marketers in deciding on media placements and market share. How authentic is the research? How scientific is it? Can it stand the test of truth, honesty and reliability? If you answered “No!” to all those questions, you think like I do…which may be a good or bad thing – depending on which side of the divide you reside!

 

Market research is frequently used to determine the preferences of the audience or the advertising market, although some programme directors, editors and media managers try to guesstimate the taste and needs of their audience or the market. Market research can be employed as part of strategic business planning and to enhance advertising revenue of media organisations. However, in most cases, this is not done consistently, professionally, or in a systematic manner. Media outlets mostly rely on call-in shows and feedback from their audiences – perhaps a reason for the preponderance of call-in shows on most Nigerian radio stations – even television programmes now resort to such lazy broadcasting methods! A few editors and managers use focus groups and commissioned research. Editors and journalists try to tailor their products to the needs of the market whenever this is discerned. Better market research often results in better-quality news and delivery. Many technocrats, rightly or in error, believe that broadcast ratings are not available in Nigeria, perhaps supported by the fact that some newspaper outlets and broadcast stations make unsubstantiated claims about the size of their audience.

 

The Audit Bureau of Circulation (ABC) was established over two decades ago to monitor and determine newspaper circulation figures. However, it became dormant partly because of general financial difficulties in sustaining its operations and also partly because it revealed low circulation figures for many newspapers. This adversely affected the newspapers’ advertising operations, and most defaulted on their contributions to the ABC. Reliable newspaper circulation figures are therefore no longer available, and there are frequent disputes over claims by newspapers about their circulation figures. (Peddled rumour states that no Nigerian newspaper even achieves a daily print run of over 60, 000 copies!)

 

Professional market researchers carry out periodic research and surveys on newspaper readership that aim to determine what kind of newspapers different classes of people read and to produce reports, such as the media habits of politicians or public officials. Although the quality of such research is high, it is not carried out regularly. There are a lot of peculiar situational criteria that one assumes is being ignored. Is erratic power supply and cost of diesel generation maintenance, reduction of social standards, economic downturn and the debilitating state  of public utilities and infrastructure ever put into consideration? How many respondents would listen to a morning radio show, for instance, when the entire community has not had electric power in days, maybe weeks? How many own transistor – battery charged radios? It would have been easier to accept or at least manage the data released by rating firms if only they were more revealing about the methods employed in arriving at their research results? That would have allayed the fears of doubters like myself and as well counter the even more incriminating allegations of bribery, often referred to as the ‘Pied piper syndrome!’ It is also quite reflective of the ensuing argument that rival company ratings in Nigeria usually differ, although there may be an authentic argument for this – Agencies that rate others for a fee clearly have a similar potential for conflict of interest. Such cases include publications that rate consumer products or vendors of financial services and while at the same time obtaining advertising revenues from those who are rated. Rating companies that refuse to have financial ties to the objects of their ratings and therefore avoid even the appearance of conflicts of interest are usually among the most highly regarded in the ratings business. Credit rating agencies likewise are subject to agency problems, since rating fees paid by issuers comprise their principal source of revenue.

 

At the time of the credit rating industry’s inception a hundred years ago with the publication of Moody’s pioneering bond books, the issue did not exist as revenues came almost entirely from the sale of publications, and none came from fees paid by issuers. This situation later became more of a problem with the growth in the importance of rated securities in the financial system and the insistence on ratings by institutional investors, their clients, and their regulators. Although banking is an absolutely different ball game, however, viewed as a profession as intricate and specific as media and broadcasting, one can appreciate recent comments by the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) Governor Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, who warned against reliance on the ratings given to banks by agencies, saying they do not reflect the true health status of the banks. According to him, such ratings are financed by the banks, which commission them. Sanusi had said: “Given that credit rating agencies measure the probability of default, they should not be heavily relied upon to validate the health of financial institutions. They are paid by the institutions to give them the rating that they want. The best rating agency should be the Central Bank of the country because it has the bank’s profile.”

 

One could rephrase all that and make it reflective of media ratings. There have long been many invalidated rumours around the industry about top leaders in ratings reports having paid for such good reviews – an allegation largely stoked by the evident unprofessionalism of some of the media organisations that are often placed upfront. Many ratings results only go to authenticate the belief that many social researchers have espoused about the Nigerian psyche over the recent past – that a majority of Nigerians are either very poor, very dumb or very mad! Because it is important and appropriate for regulators to understand the risk profile of institutions and accordingly set minimum standard and professional requirements, perhaps the better media rating body in Nigeria should be the controlling body, the NBC, or in the alternative the BON, which should now base ratings on accepted industry indices plus additional standards and quality rating criteria, including the norms of age, sex, time, IQ and programme preference.

 

For the sake of further comparison, in the financial market, the three global rating agencies are Moody’s, Standard & Poor’s and Fitch IBCA Duff & Phelps (or simply, “Fitch”) These form the core of the industry. The international coverage of the major rating groups differs to some degree, with all three having substantial coverage in the US and Europe, but with Moody’s having a somewhat greater Asian coverage and S&P focusing somewhat more heavily on Latin America. Fitch has improved global coverage and on the whole has much of its relative competitive strength outside the US. Japanese raters (JCI, Mikuni and R&I) provide limited global coverage. There is one global specialist covering the insurance sector, A.M. Best, one providing business credit information, Dun & Bradstreet, one providing global quantitative credit scoring services (KMV), and a variety of national or regional raters, notably in Japan, Sweden, Canada, Germany and Italy. These include Capital Intelligence, covering mainly peripheral markets in the Middle East, Asia and Eastern Europe. In addition, there are a number of local credit rating agencies in emerging markets.

 

In other media markets, Arbitron is a consumer research company in the United States that collects listener data on radio audiences. Arbitron’s syndicated radio ratings service collects its data by selecting a random sample of the entire U.S. population, primarily in 294 metropolitan areas, using a paper diary service two to four times a year and Portable People Meter (PPM) electronic audience measurement service 365 days a year. Major ratings products include cume (the cumulative number of unique listeners over a period), average quarter hour (AQH Share – the average number of people listening in a given 15-minute period), time spent listening, (TSL), and market breakdowns by age, gender and race/ethnic demographic. For TV, in the American media environment the term “TV ratings” immediately makes you think, “Nielsen” because Nielsen Media Research is the de facto national measurement service for the television industry in the United States and Canada. Nielsen measures the number of people watching television shows and makes its data available to the television and cable networks, advertisers and the media by using a technique called ‘statistical sampling’ to rate the shows – the same technique that pollsters use to predict the outcome of U.S. elections. Nielsen creates a sample audience and then counts how many in that audience view each program. Nielsen then extrapolates from the sample and estimates the number of viewers in the entire population watching the show. That’s a simple way of explaining what is a complicated, extensive process. Nielsen relies mainly on information collected from TV set metres that it has previously installed in the selected viewer’s homes, and then combines this information with huge databases of the programs that appear on each TV station and cable channel. Nielsen’s statistics show that 99 million households have TVs in the United States, so Nielsen’s sample is not very large. The key, therefore, is to be sure the sample is representative. Then TVs, homes, programs, and people are measured in a variety of ways. To find out what people are watching, metres installed in the selected sample of homes track when TV sets are on and what channels they are tuned to. A ‘black box,’ which is just a computer and modem, gathers and sends all this information to the company’s central computer every night. Then by monitoring what is on TV at any given time, the company is able to keep track of how many people watch which program. Small boxes, placed near the TV sets of those in the national sample, measure who is watching by giving each member of the household a button to turn on and off to show when he or she begins and ends viewing. This information is also collected each night. To ensure reasonably accurate results, the company uses audits and quality checks and regularly compares the ratings it gets from different samples and measurement methods. Participants in Nielsen’s national sample are randomly selected. Every U.S. household with a TV theoretically has a chance to be a part of the sample. This research is worth billions of dollars. Advertisers pay to air their commercials on TV programs using rates that are based on Nielsen’s data. Programmers also use Nielsen’s data to decide which shows to keep and which to cancel.

 

Can such reliance be placed on the statistical data provided by Nigerian media ratings companies? Let’s attempt a fairly credible answer. In comparison to these international structures, the Nigeria media structure is presently serviced by what is referred to in the industry as the Nigeria Dairy, which rates all radio and television stations on regional basis in monthly returns. A basic academic average of the 2010 radio percentages reveal that Top FM 90.9 was the most-listened to radio station in the Lagos area during the year. The station flipped between the first and second position for eleven months of the year – quite a feat for such a young station. What’s the secret? An interactive programming approach that relies prominently on the earlier mentioned ‘Phone-in’ philosophy. Lazy, perhaps, but it does seem to have a charming effect on most listeners. But you wonder why this valuable statistic did not seem to reflect on advertising revenue? Next comes Bond 92.9, quite understandable as the station is strategically positioned towards grass root appeal. Broadcasting in an array of Nigerian languages, the station appeals to the local inhabitants as well as the people who come to Lagos from different parts of the country. Again, I don’t hear too many adverts on Bond FM. Third-placed is Wazobia FM 96.1, the pidgin-fluent station that has the CDE grid on full lockdown – how often have you had to switch your car radio back to your preferred station after your driver had handed over the keys? At fourth and fifth places come Brilla FM, the 24-hour sport station, and Cool 96.9, which slightly edges Radio Continental and Rhythm to sixth and seventh.

 

Such rating should decide where the advertising budgets of major advertisers ends up represented by the volume of advertising share top stations would gain. However just by switching on the car radio on your way to work in the morning you can easily tell the winners of this game of market share Sudoku – tune in to Cool or Rhythm during the morning show and you wonder whether or not a name change would be required updating – “The Morning Commercial Show” – with the pay off – “We play more advert spots than music!”

 

So, are we all magicians trying to out Blaine Mr. David? I used to love David Blaine. He did some of the coolest magic tricks, often sacrificing credibility and integrity, however in his last memorable stunt a few years ago he laid claim to having spent sixty hours upside down when in reality he was actually upright at least once an hour for up to twenty minutes. How the baloney was that sixty hours upside down?

 

Enough of the tricks, guys, let’s play the game like the rest of the world does. Am I asking too much? Or maybe I’ve just been watching too many magic shows!

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Posted in: Essays