Friday, 20 November 2009

Commercial radio and DAB: turkeys voting for Christmas

Significant players in the UK commercial radio industry, along with Digital Radio UK, the Digital Radio Development Bureau, DCMS and Ofcom are all lobbying for DAB receiver take-up to be accelerated and for consumers to migrate their radio listening to DAB as quickly as possible. However, the industry’s own data suggest that the pursuit of these strategies will simply reduce even further commercial radio’s already declining share of radio listening versus the BBC.

The commercial radio sector’s diminishing success in competing for listeners against the BBC remains one of its most pressing problems. In 1998, commercial radio’s share of listening was 51.1%, but that figure is now down to 42.4% [RAJAR Q2 1998 versus Q3 2009]. Conversely, the BBC’s share has increased from 46.8% to 55.0% over the same period. The long-term decline in commercial radio’s market power looks like this in recent quarters [see graph below]:

However, if we examine listening solely on digital radio platforms, we see that commercial radio is losing listening share much more sharply [see graph below]. In 2007, commercial radio’s share of listening via digital platforms had been above the average for all platforms and so was ‘helping’ the overall fight against the BBC for market share. However, in two of the last three quarters, commercial radio’s share via digital platforms has been lower than for all platforms, and so is now dragging down the sector’s overall market share.

Worse, with each new quarter, radio listening via digital platforms is growing as a proportion of total radio listening, so that the ‘contribution’ of digital platforms to the overall picture is becoming greater. In Q2 2007 (the earliest point on the timescale of these graphs), digital platforms accounted for only 12.9% of total listening. In the latest quarter, that proportion has increased to 21.1%.

Now, if we extract listening via DAB from the total for all digital platforms, we observe two phenomena [see graph below]. Firstly, commercial radio is badly losing the battle for DAB platform usage to the BBC by a ratio of 1:2. Secondly, commercial radio’s performance on the DAB platform is worsening over time. It is the combination of these two trends which is dragging down not only the commercial sector’s share of digital platforms, but also its overall competitive performance against the BBC.

To make matters worse, DAB is the largest element of radio listening via digital platforms (up from 54.4% in Q2 2007 to 62.9% in Q3 2009 of listening via all digital platforms), and the DAB platform’s contribution to total radio listening is similarly growing (up from 7.0% in Q2 2007 to 13.3% in Q3 2009). DAB is the focus of the radio industry’s digital platform marketing campaigns, so the commercial sector’s current poor performance on this platform is disastrous.

The data suggests that, far from the DAB platform helping the commercial radio sector compete more effectively against the BBC, the absolute opposite holds true:
• The average adult with a newly acquired DAB radio uses it for listening in a way that effectively reduces the commercial radio sector’s overall share of listening versus the BBC
• Acceleration of DAB usage will only serve to accelerate the decline in commercial radio’s share of radio listening versus the BBC.

These outcomes are hardly surprising when one considers industry data which show that:
• DAB radios are purchased predominantly by older people (the average age of a DAB radio receiver owner is 46, according to RAJAR)
• Older people listen to BBC radio much more than to commercial radio (BBC radio accounts for 63% of radio listening amongst over-45s, according to RAJAR).

The paradox is that stakeholders in commercial radio continue to push for DAB to be adopted by consumers as quickly as possible, even though the inevitable outcome will be to reduce further the commercial sector’s listening share, handing the BBC even more of a competitive advantage.

So why exactly does the notion continue to be voiced by significant players in commercial radio that the DAB platform is itself the answer to the sector’s present lack of competitiveness with the BBC?

[Data source: RAJAR. Statistical note: The graphs above to do not sum to 100% because the minimal amount of platform data released by RAJAR is ‘rounded’ (hours listened to 1,000,000 per week; listening shares to 0.1%) and the listening apportioned to the BBC and commercial radio sometimes does not sum to the total for a platform. Part of this shortfall may be accounted for by ‘other’ listening (neither the BBC nor commercial radio) which is not itemised by platform. Data for individual quarters are therefore somewhat inconsistent, though the trend over several quarters is likely to be indicative.]

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