Radio Ratings

Is there “an unexpected downside” for Nielsen’s radio clients from the measurement giant’s new “Subscriber First” policy? Veteran researcher Charlie Sislen thinks so. The Partner in Research Director, Inc. says the new policy brings unintended consequences for radio subscribers trying to size up the strengths and weaknesses of their non-subscribing competitors.

As first reported by Inside Radio in a breaking news alert Oct. 28, 2020, Nielsen will no longer include listening data for non-subscribing stations in the summary dataset that fuels the major buying systems used by agencies and advertisers. The policy change went into effect in January for PPM markets with diary markets set to follow in April 2021.

While non-subscribers won’t be included in Strata and the other major buying platforms – making them invisible to the majority of ad agencies – Nielsen says it will continue to include their numbers in respondent level data, the granular data that some of Nielsen’s broadcast customers subscribe to. But for those that don’t, there are competitive ramifications for programming and marketing teams.

“We see cases in which PDs of subscribing stations want to know the strength of their competitors in order to strategize how to grow their audience by stealing their competitor’s listeners,” Sislen writes in a blog post, entitled “Nielsen’s War On Non-Subscribers.” “This is difficult if they don’t know all their competitors’ demographic, geographic, and daypart strengths.”

Sales Implications

Sislen shines a light on other consequences for subscribers from the new policy, the latest in a series of steps Nielsen has taken in recent years to remove benefits for non-subscribers in an effort to bring them back into the fold. Nielsen requires a subscribing station’s stream to also subscribe in order to be reported. At a time when more listening is occurring on station streams, subscribers must pay an additional fee to get credit for digital listening, Sislen points out.

Nielsen has taken a drubbing from some non-subscribers for the “Subscriber First” policy with Saga Communications CEO Ed Christian calling it a “terrible disservice” to ad agencies and “punitive and almost mean-spirited” to radio stations that choose not to subscribe to the ratings service.

Some ad agencies have also questioned the move. “We feel like we will no longer be receiving the data that we originally contracted for – a full view of radio listening in measured markets,” Bernie Shimkus, VP, Director of Insights at agency Harmelin Media, told Inside Radio last fall. As recently as December, some agencies were still getting their arms around the change. “We are in the process of addressing it,” Kathy Doyle, Executive VP of Local Investment at Magna said then. She likened the new policy to “taking a step backwards.”

Now some in the research community are also raising a red flag. “When engaging clients about this change, it’s appropriate to ask the question: Is it Nielsen’s primary job to deliver data that properly reflects all radio listening in a local market OR to increase its profits for their parent company and shareholders?” says Sislen.

“Subscriber First” may accomplish its intended goal of enticing some non-subscribers back into the fold, especially in the 200 diary markets where the impact will be felt much more deeply than in the 48 PPM markets. Nielsen’s current subscriber penetration rate among the top 20 ranked stations in PPM markets is 97%. But in diary markets it’s in the low to mid-80s.

“Subscribers may argue that these changes diminish the value of their report, as it lacks data on potential competitors,” Sislen suggests. “What could be a short-term financial gain for Nielsen may hurt them in the long run.”

While underscoring that his company. Research Director, Inc. believes that only paying subscribers should use Nielsen data to benefit their radio station, he also sounds an alarm. “There will be an unexpected downside from these changes that could hurt those paying the bill.”