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Handicapping the Impact of Christmas Music on December Radio

3 minute read | December 2013

There’s no mistaking the impact the holidays have on consumer behavior: they inspire goodwill toward one another, trigger a fervent rash of consumerism and prompt us to swill egg-based cocktails. And with Christmas just one day away, holiday music has overtaken the radio airwaves to put millions of Americans in the spirit of the season before the dawn of a New Year. Though the impact of holiday music has its predictable side when it comes to the airwaves, this year’s programming has stuffed the stockings with some surprises that not even Santa anticipated.

In looking at the December listening trends from Nielsen’s portable people meter (PPM) markets, Adult Contemporary (AC) and its sister holiday-programming format (Soft AC) led the headlines as expected. In fact, AC jumped to second place from fourth place among all listeners 6 and older across the country in December, increasing its audience share by 13 percent. The surprise, however, was the impact that holiday programming had on other major music formats—a shift when compared with the trends of years past.

Below are some highlights from Nielsen’s December PPM data across 45 markets* using the full-week (Mon-Sun 6 a.m.-midnight) daypart and audience shares for the 6+, 18-34 and 25-54 demographics.

The 2013 Holiday Scorecard Has Changed

Last month we profiled how holiday programming affected the major music formats in 2012, noting that AC was the clear winner, while Country, Hot AC and Pop CHR saw the most negative ratings impact between November and holiday surveys. Now that we have our first month of data from this season, there a few noteworthy differences stood out among the shares for persons 6+:

  • Soft AC, AC’s older sibling, saw a dramatic jump by going all-Christmas again this year, ranking second in the number of total stations in holiday format. Traditionally, Soft AC’s shares climb above 1 only during the holidays, and appears headed that direction again in 2013, finishing with a 0.8-share this month.
  • Hot AC, which has been having its best year ever, gained ground in December—a marked change from last holiday season, when Hot AC shares dropped 6 percent.
  • On the flipside, Pop Contemporary Hit Radio (CHR) shares dropped 6 percent during one month of holiday programming, eclipsing the 4 percent drop it experienced over two months of holiday programming last season.
  • Classic Hits was the one major music format that held steady in December after its shares lost 4 percent last season. The difference? Approximately 50 percent more Classic Hits stations flipped their formats to Christmas music this year.

How holiday programming affected major music formats in December

Format Change in Share from Nov. 2013 to Dec. 2013
Soft AC 33%
Adult Contemporary 13%
Hot AC 2%
Urban AC 2%
Classic Hits Flat
Rhythmic CHR -3%
Country -3%
Mexican Regional -5%
Pop CHR -6%
Source: Nielsen

Is The Christmas Pie Shrinking?

While there’s no mistaking the mass appeal of holiday programming on the airwaves, we are seeing an interesting trend emerge when we compare the historical December results for AC and Soft AC combined. Since December of 2011, the combined shares for these formats—which flip more stations to Christmas programming than any other—have dropped by nearly 2 full share points across the PPM markets (11.1 in December 2011 compared with 9.3 in December 2013). We will explore this trend further next month to see if it holds up. In holiday 2012 the combined 6+ shares for AC and Soft AC were 13.0, down from 13.7 in holiday 2011.

December 2013 PPM Markets Top Five Formats by Average Quarter Hour Share (Full Week Daypart)

Persons 6+ Adults 18-34 Adults 25-54
News/Talk (9.2%) Pop CHR (12.2%) Pop CHR (8.7%)
AC (8.5%) Country (9.1%) AC (8.2%)
Country (7.7%) AC (7.3%) Country (7.4%)
Pop CHR (7.6%) Rhythmic CHR (6.9%) Hot AC (6.3%)
Hot AC (5.7%) Hot AC (6.5%) News/Talk (6.1%)
Source: Nielsen


*Nielsen Audio officially has 48 measured PPM markets, but three of them (Nassau-Suffolk, Middlesex-Somerset-Union, and San Jose) are included in the larger New York and San Francisco metro areas. Therefore, the listening stats from those markets are included in our study even though we did not break them out separately.

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