Spanish-language media giant Univision Communications has fired a programming executive at its KSCA-FM (101.9) in Los Angeles for scheming to artificially inflate the radio station's ratings.
The high-ranking executive, who was not named by the company, had access to several devices that ratings giant Nielsen uses to gauge audience sizes. The so-called portable people meters were then apparently set to KSCA, making it look as if the station had more listeners.
KSCA leapfrogged over four other stations to claim the No. 1 spot in April for its morning drive-time show. Nielsen's April ratings indicated that Univision's morning show was more popular than powerhouses such as Ryan Seacrest on KIIS-FM (102.7) and "Kevin & Bean" on KROQ-FM (106.7).
The ratings incident marks the second controversy to hit Univision's Los Angeles station since it canceled Eddie Sotelo's wildly popular "Piolín por la Manana" last summer. Sotelo left the station amid allegations of sexual harassment by a co-worker that set off a series of legal skirmishes.
"We are cooperating fully with Nielsen," Jose Valle, president of Univision Radio, said in a statement Monday. "A radio station employee being related to a Nielsen participant seriously undermines the industry and is unacceptable."
Nielsen said it had launched "an immediate and aggressive review" into how the breach happened. The New York company said it would review ratings issued since last year to check for further inaccuracies. Nielsen got into the radio measurement business last fall when it acquired Arbitron. It also plans to issue revised ratings for April and its May report this week.
Ratings wars among big radio stations aren't just for bragging rights by on-air personalities.
More than $1 billion is spent each year by advertisers in the L.A. market, and stations rely heavily on Nielsen to establish their ad rates. Fluctuations in audience levels could cost a station hundreds of thousands of dollars in potential revenue.
For Univision, the launch of its new morning program in December was crucial on several fronts. The media giant needed a strong program to replace the one that featured Piolín, and they wanted to syndicate the program for use in other markets.
"El Bueno, La Mala y El Feo" (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly) was an immediate hit among Spanish-speaking listeners who tuned in for a mix of Mexican regional music and banter between its three hosts. The program was syndicated and also performed well in Chicago, Dallas, Houston, San Antonio and San Diego.
But its big April ratings surge startled other station managers because it trounced rivals.
Peter W. Burton, vice president and general manger at the Los Angeles classic rock station 100.3 FM the Sound declined to comment on Nielsen's investigation into the Univision executive. But Burton credited Nielsen for promptly taking steps to correct the problem.
"It's good to know that Nielsen has these measures in place to catch things like this," Burton said. "We're glad Nielsen's doing the best they can to be accurate. Everything in life can be manipulated, and we pay a lot of money for Nielsen [ratings]."
Ratings companies historically have struggled to accurately represent Spanish-language viewers in their sample audiences. Many immigrant families are suspicious of a company that says it wants to monitor their TV viewing and radio preferences and will not agree to participate.
When it cannot achieve a sufficient number of any demographic group, including Spanish-speaking Latinos or affluent consumers, Nielsen will then rely on statistical calculations to weight the sample. That process could give one family a disproportionate effect on the outcome of the ratings.
There are 2,700 families in the Los Angeles region who participate in the Nielsen sample audience for radio. The company has not disclosed what percentage are Spanish speakers. They receive the portable people meters, which they are supposed to wear during the day. The device detects the signals of radio stations being listened to and transmits the data to Nielsen.
Radio executives have said several recent cases suggest problems with Nielsen's methodology and recruitment efforts to attract a representative sample into its audience panels. Nielsen, for its part, says it intends to expand the size of its sample audience in L.A. in the next few months.
This wasn't the first case of alleged ratings manipulation involving members of Nielsen's sample pool of radio listeners.
Radio executives were suspicious of last year's sudden strong performance for KLAX-FM (97.9), a radio station owned by Spanish Broadcasting System. In that case, a Spanish-language morning show hosted by a former janitor-turned disc jockey, Ricardo Sanchez, soared in popularity and overtook Univision's KSCA and English-language competitors.
Nielsen investigated allegations that a delivery truck driver was tipping off station associates by providing them with the names and addresses of people in the sample audience when they received a people meter in the mail.
Nielsen never confirmed the allegations. Spanish Broadcasting took Sanchez, who goes by the moniker "El Mandril" (the Baboon), off the air. He was never implicated in those allegations and has since moved to another station.
Staff writers Ryan Faughnder and Saba Hamedy contributed to this report.