The FCC today issued a Notice of Inquiry into the use of the Portable People Meter technology of radio audience measurement now being rolled out by Arbitron in radio markets throughout the country.  Several months ago, various groups petitioned the FCC for an inquiry into the PPM, contending that it has certain methodological flaws that undercounted particular groups, including minority groups, and thus could have an impact on the financial viability of the stations listened to by such groups (see our summary  of the petitions and the issues raised by these petitions).  The Notice of Inquiry asks about those perceived flaws, about the potential impact of any flaws on the use of Arbitron market definitions for purposes of the FCC radio multiple ownership rules, and on the more general question of whether the FCC even has the jurisdiction to regulate the use of the PPM.

Specific questions on which the FCC seeks comments include:

  • Does the use of this technology really undercount minority populations?
  • If so, what has been the impact on the economics of minority-formatted stations in markets where the system is in use?
  • Are there specific information gathering techniques that should be improved in the PPM system?
  • What has been the effect on the PPM system of settlements between Arbitron and the Attorneys General of several states – where Arbitron promised to change its sampling process?
  • What is the impact of Media Ratings Council accreditation for the PPM in certain markets, and its lack of accreditation in others?
  • Do the questions about PPM reliability have any impact on the use of Arbitron to define radio markets for FCC multiple ownership purposes?
  • What is the FCC’s jurisdiction to review Arbitron’s practices in connection with the PPM? 

Details of these questions can be found in the FCC’s Notice of Inquiry at pages 12-17.


Continue Reading FCC Begins Formal Inquiry Into Arbitron PPM Audience Measurement

We recently wrote about the controversy before the FCC about Arbitron‘s roll-out of the Portable People Meter ("PPM").  A number of broadcast groups, particularly those who target minority audiences with their programming, have requested that the FCC hold a hearing as to whether the introduction of the PPM in a number of major radio markets should be allowed, arguing that it has the potential to discriminate against minority audiences and to decrease diversity in the media.  Arbitron and other broadcast groups have opposed the initiation of that proceeding, arguing that the regulation of a ratings service exceeds the FCC’s regulatory authority.  Now, the opponents of the PPM have sough relief from a number of state and local governments, with the Attorneys General of New York and New Jersey filing suit to prevent the initiation of service by Arbitron.  The office of New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo issued this Press Release, and that of New Jersey Attorney General Anne Milgram issued this Release, citing the reasons for the suit.  Both claim that the use of PPM technology, which they claim has methodological flaws, is a deceptive trade practice by a monopoly provider of services.  The NJ suit goes on to claim that the disparate effect of the claimed inaccurate measurements on minority and ethnic stations violated the state’s anti-discrimination laws.  Arbitron of course denies these claims.

The lawsuits have received substantial coverage in both the popular and trade press.  Today’s Washington Post has an article discussing the controversy.  Citing an interview with Alfred Liggins of Radio One, a leading radio group targeting African American listeners, the article suggests that the PPM may take a while for stations to adapt to, but once they do, even minority-targeted stations can obtain valuable programming feedback from the new methodology, as it allows feedback as the ratings information in days rather than the months that that the current diary system requires.  This rapid feedback allows broadcasters to make programming adjustments that will allow them to maintain or improve their ratings position.  Mark Ramsey’s Hear 2.0 blog looks at some anomalies in the PPM in specific demographics, but in another post concludes that despite whatever shortcomings the PPM may have, the industry needs to work with Arbitron on insuring that the PPM works – as an automated system is inherently more reliable than the diary method that relies on listeners recalling and accurately writing down their radio listening.


Continue Reading NY and NJ State Attorneys General Sue to Stop Roll Out of PPM – What’s A Station to Do?

Last week, the FCC released a Public Notice asking for comments on whether it should begin a Section 403 investigation into the use of Arbitron’s Portable People Meter ("PPM").  A coalition of broadcast groups, the "PPM Coalition," principally comprised of broadcasters providing service to minority communities, sought the investigation as a way of delaying the implementation of the PPM technology next month in a number of large broadcast markets.  In their request, which can be found on the Minority Media and Telecommunications Council website, the PPM Coalition argues that the investigation is justified based on the Commission’s objectives (and various administrative and legislative mandates) to improve minority ownership in broadcasting.  The PPM Coalition contends that methodology problems in PPM implementation result in artificially low ratings for minority owned stations.  These parties argue that, if the system is implemented, a number of minority-programmed stations will disappear.  Arbitron has argued that the Commission does not have the jurisdiction to regulate ratings services (who are obviously not FCC licensees) or the methodology that they use.  Comments on the request for an investigatory hearing are due on September 24, and replies on October 6 (two days before the PPM system is to be implemented in eight markets).

Section 403 of the Communications Act gives the Federal Communications Commission the power to conduct investigations of any complaint of any violation of its rules or of provisions of the Communications Act, or to explore any other matter relating to the provisions of the Act.  Such investigations are often conducted before an Administrative Law Judge, but can be conducted before the Commission itself, and allow the FCC to use full discovery techniques (e.g. document production requests and depositions) and to conduct an evidenciary hearing.  In the past, the process was used much more frequently.  It has been used both to investigate specific complaints of possible misconduct by individual licensees, and to conduct broader inquiries into business practices in a regulated industry to decide if FCC regulation was necessary.  For instance, in the 1960s, there was an investigation into network practices to determine if those practices required FCC action to regulate the network-affiliate relationship.  In recent years, the power has been rarely used, and when used has tended to relate to specific allegations of misconduct to determine if the FCC should bring some sort of enforcement action against a regulated entity.


Continue Reading FCC Seeks Comment on Whether to Begin Investigation of Arbitron PPM – How Far Does FCC Regulatory Power Extend?

Last week, the US Senate passed a resolution of disapproval, which seeks to overturn the FCC’s December decision relaxing the multiple ownership rules to allow newspapers and television stations to come under common ownership in the nation’s largest markets (see our summary of the FCC decision here).  This vote, by itself, does not overturn that decision.  Like any other legislation, it must also be adopted by the House of Representatives, and not vetoed by the President, to become law.  In 2003, the last time that the FCC attempted to relax its ownership rules, the Senate approved a similar resolution, but the House never followed suit (perhaps because the decision was stayed by the Third Circuit Court of Appeals before the House could act).  In this case, we will have to see whether the House acts (no dates for its consideration have yet been scheduled).  Even if the House does approve the resolution, White House officials have indicated that the President will veto the bill, meaning that, unless there is a 2/3 majority of each house of Congress ready to override the veto, this effort will also fail.

The reactions to this bill passing the Senate have been varied.  The two FCC Democratic Commissioners, who both opposed any relaxation of the ownership rules, each issued statements praising the Senate action (see Commissioner Copps statement here and that of Commissioner Adelstein here).  The NAB, on the other hand, opposed the action, arguing that the relaxation was minimal, that it was necessary given "seismic changes in the media landscape over the last three decades" (presumably referring to including the economic and competitive pressures faced by the broadcast and newspaper industries in the current media environment), and that it ought not be undone by Congressional actions.   


Continue Reading Senate Resolution of Disapproval on Multiple Ownership – What Does it Mean?

In a recent decision, the FCC interpreted its radio multiple ownership rules in a case involving changes in an Arbitron market.  The FCC’s rules restrict the number of radio stations that one company can own in a market based on how many stations are in that radio market.  In situations where stations are rated in an Arbitron market, the number of stations is determined by how many stations are in that Arbitron market, as determined by data compiled by the financial analysis firm BIA.  In this case, while the application to acquire the station was pending, BIA came out with its first list of stations that it considered to be in the newly created Arbitron market.  That list showed that, in the new market, the Buyer already owned more stations than allowed by the rules, so acquisition of this additional station was prohibited.  The case stands for the proposition that, while changes in Arbitron markets that allow an acquisition to take place must have been in place for two years to become effective (to prevent owners from gaming the system by making short-term changes), changes that adversely affect the ability of an owner to acquire a station become effective immediately.

According to the decision, at the time that the application in question was filed, the station to be bought was listed by BIA as being in the Manchester, New Hampshire Arbitron market.  The number of stations owned by the Buyer in Manchester was such that the acquisition of the station was permissible at the time the application was filed.  However, Arbitron announced the creation of a new Concord radio market just before the filing of the FCC application for approval of the transfer of control of the radio station.  Soon after the filing of the application, BIA released its list of stations in the new Concord market, and it included a number of the stations owned by Buyer, including the station it was proposing to acquire.  In the new Concord market, the Buyer would have too many stations to permit the acquisition of this station under the restrictions set out in the multiple ownership rules.


Continue Reading Adverse Change in Arbitron Market Blocks Radio Acquisition Under Multiple Ownership Rules

The FCC this week released the full text of its decision on the revision of the multiple ownership rules that it adopted at its December 18 meeting.  While the text goes into great detail on the decision to relax the newspaper-television cross ownership restrictions (causing the ruling to be condemned by consolidation critics), the order is very brief in addressing the numerous other issues with the multiple ownership rules that were raised in this proceeding.  Television broadcasters sought greater opportunities to consolidate in local markets, and radio broadcasters requested reconsideration or clarification of various aspects of the Commission’s 2003 decision adopting Arbitron market definitions as the basis of the determining how many radio stations are in a particular market.  These requests were all rejected, some summarily.  Will these parties who were denied relief from the FCC protest as loudly as the critics of the decision with respect to the relaxation of the TV-newspaper cross ownership limits?

We summarized the decision with respect to the newspaper television rules here.  That summary was based on the statements made at the December 18 meeting and on the press release issued that day which provided a brief summary of the Commission’s decision.  The outline we provided in December was basically accurate, and there were few surprises about the newspaper-television cross ownership rules in the text.  The Commission was very thorough in documenting the basis for its decision that newspapers and television stations could be commonly controlled without adversely affecting the public interest, citing a legion of studies supporting their decision, while carefully refuting the studies supplied by consolidation critics.  However, the remainder of the decision, dealing with other aspects of the multiple ownership rules which the Commission refused to change, contained reasoning which was far more limited.  In some cases, particularly dealing with radio issues, the reasoning was almost absent.


Continue Reading FCC Issues Text of Its Multiple Ownership Decision – New Combinations for Newspapers and TV, No Ownership Changes for Radio

Yesterday’s unique Public Notice outlining Chairman Martin’s proposals for reform of the multiple ownership rules (which we summarized here) is a surprisingly restrained and limited approach to relaxation of the ownership rules – proposing to relax only the newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership prohibitions, and only in the Top 20 TV markets.  Moreover, the reform would only allow the combination of a daily newspaper and a single radio or TV station, and the newspaper-TV combination would only be allowed if the TV station is not one of the Top 4 ranked stations in the market.  While the extremely limited nature of the proposed relief has not stopped critics of big media from immediately condemning the proposal (see the joint statement of Commissioners Copps and Adelstein, here), much less attention has been paid to those multiple ownership issues that the Chairman’s proposal does not seem to address – including TV duopoly relief in small markets and clarifications to the radio ownership rules requested by a number of broadcasters who sought reconsideration of the changes that arose from the 2003 ownership reforms. 

The Chairman’s Public Notice is itself a new approach to regulation – putting out for public comment (due by December 11) an action of the Commission just before that action is to be taken.  Usually, the Commission proposes a set of rule changes in a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, and the Notice provides time for interested parties to comment and then reply to each other’s comments.  Once all the written comments are submitted to the Commission, parties and their representative often make informal visits to the FCC to argue about the suggestions that have been made, and eventually, after much consideration, the Commission’s staff writes up a decision which is vetted by the Commissioners and their staff, and voted on by the full FCC.  Usually, these final decisions are shrouded in secrecy – though outlines of the proposals are often the subject of informed gossip and rumor, rarely does anyone see the full set of rules that the Commission is considering until after the decision is made. 


Continue Reading What Chairman Martin’s Multiple Ownership Proposals Omit – No Relief for Radio and TV