As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Sunday, March 08, 2009

The Truth About Ratings

The conventional wisdom is that Rush's ratings have doubled since he became the leader of the Republican Party. In actuality nobody really knows, because radio ratings are about as accurate as Bill Kristol on Election Night.

Limbaugh is widely acknowledged to be the most popular talk-radio host, as evidenced by the record $400 million, eight-year contract he signed with his syndicator last July. But estimates of Limbaugh's nationwide (and overseas) audience are exercises in guesswork, slippery methodology and suspect data. Limbaugh himself has muddied the water with the claim that he reaches 20 million people a week, although there's no independent support for that figure.

Arbitron, the radio industry's dominant audience-measurement company, has never publicly released a national estimate for Limbaugh, and it says, in effect, that the job is too complicated, expensive and time-consuming to bother with [...]

The ratings service can say with some precision how large Limbaugh's audience is in a particular city and at a particular time. In the Washington region, for example, Limbaugh's program -- carried from noon to 3 p.m. on WMAL (630 AM) -- attracted an average of 167,700 unique listeners per week during January. Limbaugh has never been a huge draw in Washington; his show ranked 14th overall during January, far behind ratings leaders WTOP-FM (567,500 weekly listeners), soft-rock station WASH-FM (526,300) and Top-40 station WIHT-FM (349,300).

Premiere Radio Networks, Limbaugh's national syndicator, estimated last year that 3.59 million people were in Limbaugh's audience during an average quarter-hour of his program, based on a review of Arbitron's piecemeal data about hundreds of stations.

Because people typically tune in and tune out of stations, however, that number doesn't reflect how many individuals cumulatively listened at some point during the week. What's more, Premiere's figure is based on data from the first three months of 2008, a virtual lifetime ago in the fast-moving radio business [...]

Figuring out the size of Limbaugh's flock "is an art, not a science," says Michael Harrison, the editor of Talkers magazine, a trade journal about the talk-radio field. "It's very hard to come up with an exact answer. It really reveals the embarrassing state of radio ratings."

I'll take it a step further. Nobody knows who really watches television, either. With TiVo you can get a more accurate picture of what's being taped, but the sample sizes for Nielsen families is so large that the margin of error is enormous. They actually have the technology to make that more accurate, but it would involve putting a set-top box on every television in the United States. Right now they're on 25,000. The rest of the monitoring is done with hand-written diaries.

TV and radio ratings represent a shared faith between broadcasters and advertisers. They each believe that the numbers are real, and make their transactions on that basis. But it's as fictional as Rush Limbaugh saying he has 20 million listeners. Which is good enough for the media to report, I guess.

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