Hidden ‘public-address’ audience will soon be exposed

Narrow roads string up and over limestone ridges, rising high above the west coast of Barbados. Small villages with names like Mullins Bay, Barrens and Terrace are scattered along these roadways featuring small 'chattel' houses with brightly painted wooden siding and galvanized tin roofs. Sitting inside some of these homes, by open windows, are old men and women who nod and say 'good morning.' And behind them, is the omni-present din of the radio - the BBC morning news or perhaps gospel music.

Narrow roads string up and over limestone ridges, rising high above the west coast of Barbados. Small villages with names like Mullins Bay, Barrens and Terrace are scattered along these roadways featuring small ‘chattel’ houses with brightly painted wooden siding and galvanized tin roofs. Sitting inside some of these homes, by open windows, are old men and women who nod and say ‘good morning.’ And behind them, is the omni-present din of the radio – the BBC morning news or perhaps gospel music.

When I go for my early morning hikes during my visits to Barbados, I always find myself in the middle of a public-address system – literally.

Austin Clarke, brilliant writer, teacher and storyteller, born in Barbados, residing in Toronto, says the Bajan habit of cranking up the radio volume originates from the days when only a handful of villagers could afford a radio receiving set. They turned up the volume of their radios in order to share their medium with their less fortunate neighbours. They turned what is normally a private one-on-one medium into a public-address system.

This is an obscure example of additional audience that is hidden from the prying eyes of broadcast measurement technology. More recent examples of this phenomenon closer to home would include the telecast of the Canada/U.S. men’s Olympic hockey game, which generated a 30 rating. That rating could have been as high as a 40 or 50 had living room partiers and tavern-goers been included.

A friend of mine, along with waves of New Yorkers fleeing on foot from downtown Manhattan on Sept. 11, relied on radio broadcasts emitting from parked cars for news updates.

In all cases there are large audiences left on the table by the sellers of media time. And advertisers find themselves reaching audiences they did not intend to reach, can’t quantify and can’t visualize.

When events are massive, these hidden public-address audiences are massive. But even regular TV and radio programs capture significant numbers of extra hidden audience. Quantifying this is like estimating the value of Canada’s illicit drug industry – seems big but who knows for sure?

Well the guessing game is about to come to an end because the heretofore hidden public address audience is about to be tracked down. A new measurement technology called the Portable People Meter (PPM), which has existed in prototype form for a decade, could soon be deployed commercially here in Canada by BBM.

The PPM is a cigarette-sized monitor worn all day long by the sample respondent. It can sniff out I.D. codes embedded in TV and radio broadcasts. When the PPM-carrying respondent comes within hearing distance of a radio or TV signal, the time of exposure and station I.D. is recorded electronically. The radio listening and TV viewing experiences for the day are then downloaded from the PPM monitor to a bedside docking system. From there, the tuning data is relayed down the home’s phone lines to a central server where numbers are stored – ready to be tumbled and processed by eager buyers and sellers.

No TV viewer or radio listener will be able to hide in a PPM world. They will become an ingredient in a station’s audience mix when they join their neighbours for a Super Bowl party, when they watch a baseball game at their favourite sports bar, when they enter a store with a radio station airing in the background. And advertisers and media sellers will have the added bonus that comes from capturing both TV and radio listening habits from the same sample. Planners will be able to determine to what extent their radio commercial buy duplicates their TV schedule – a feature the industry lost when TV and radio moved to separate BBM diary measurement decades ago.

There will be an impact when the new audience data generated by PPM technology streams down to media buyers and sellers. Certainly, TV and radio audience levels will jump. The sellers will try to raise their rates. The buyers will resist the rate increases. The industry will scratch its collective head trying to figure out how to manage within the new audience landscape.

But PPM measurement could trigger an even bigger impact – a wholesale revision in how media planners perceive TV and radio audiences. Viewers will cease to be perceived as single individuals or couples sitting by their TV sets. TV viewers will become dynamic – like a live audience watching a concert or a play.

And with this change in perception will come a change in creative techniques and media planning styles. Just as film actors need a change in headspace when they perform in front of a live audience, we ad practitioners will need to relearn our audience attention-getting techniques. Our media plans and messages will need to grab the attention of the living room crowd certainly, but we’ll need to grab the crowds at the periphery of the viewing and listening core as well.

We’ll need to think about those eavesdropping neighbours in the Bajan village when we plan that next campaign.

Rob Young is a founding partner and SVP, planning and research, at Toronto-based Harrison, Young, Pesonen & Newell. He can be reached at ryoung@hypn.com.