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One Last Listen to the 2013 Holiday Radio Season

4 minute read | January 2014

By now the holidays may seem like a distant memory: people are watching their waistlines and stuffing decorations into dark basement corners. But that doesn’t mean we’ve heard the last of the 2013 holiday season. So before you start breaking your new resolutions, let’s recap the impact of Nielsen’s holiday ratings book, which spanned the four weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas when holiday programming fills the audio spectrum all across the country.

Last month, in the build-up to the holiday bonanza that stretches between America’s two major end-of-year celebrations, we noticed that the early impact of Christmas music seemed to have changed the playing field among the major music formats in Nielsen’s portable people meter (PPM) markets when compared with the trends of years past. Now, with the release of the Holiday book, we’re finding that the final scorecard for this season of Christmas programming managed to level out and, with a few notable exceptions, mirror the results seen in previous years.

Overall, Adult Contemporary (AC) is the leading format when it comes to holiday programming every year in Nielsen’s portable people meter (PPM) markets. And 2013 was no exception—it claimed the top spot in both the 6+ and 25-54 demographics, overtaking News/Talk and Pop Contemporary Hit Radio (CHR), respectively. It also held the second position with 18-34 year-old listeners (Pop CHR remained #1) bypassing Country in December. But the story doesn’t end there; AC’s older sibling—soft AC—made more noise this year. And a few other major formats also saw their results buck the trend of years past.

The Final 2013 Holiday Scorecard Is In

Below are some highlights from Nielsen’s Holiday PPM data across 45 markets* using the full-week (Mon-Sun 6 a.m.-midnight) daypart and audience shares for the 6+ demographic.

  • With the second-highest number of stations that program Christmas music behind AC, Soft AC got more bang for its buck during this year’s season—to the tune of almost 30% higher increases in shares since the November survey—as compared with 2012. The format also won the race for largest share increase percentage-wise, rising to a 1.1 share in Holiday from a 0.6 in November.
  • Hot AC, which had a banner year in 2013, was one of only two formats that managed to flip its Holiday slump this year from 2012. A year ago, this format’s shares dropped 6 percent during the holiday season but instead grew slightly this year, gaining a 10th of share-point (to 5.7 from 5.6).
  • By devoting more stations to holiday programming than in years past, Classic Hits was the other format to reverse its negative trend from last year. The strategy paid off as the format held steady with a 5.2 share across all three of the most recent months.
  • On the other hand, Mexican Regional went the opposite direction. After a flat trend in 2012, the number-one format with Hispanic listeners dropped 8 percent between November and Holiday, falling to 3.5 from 3.8.

How Holiday Programming Affected Major Music Formats between November and Holiday

Format (6+ share) % change Nov12 – Holiday12 % change Nov13 – Holiday13
Soft AC 57% 83%
Adult Contemporary 76% 61%
Hot AC -6% 2%
Urban AC Flat Flat
Classic Hits -4% Flat
Rhythmic CHR Flat -3%
Pop CHR -4% -5%
Mexican Regional Flat -8%
Country -13% -13%
Source: Nielsen

A Smaller Share of Christmas Pie

While less pie right now may sound appealing to your New Year’s resolutions, it was the reality on the airwaves this December. As we suspected during last month’s recap of the first half of December numbers, radio’s Christmas music audience has been shrinking for the past several years. Combining the shares for AC and Soft AC—the two formats that devote more stations to Christmas programming than any other—the holiday programming pie was nearly a full share-point smaller this season compared with 2011.

AC Holiday Listening during the Past Three Years

Format (6+ share) Holiday 2011 Holiday 2012 Holiday 2013
AC 12.8% 12.7% 12.1%
Soft AC 1.3% 1.1% 1.1%
Combined 14.1% 13.8% 13.2%
Source: Nielsen

Of course, 2013’s shortened holiday season may have contributed to this decline in holiday hits. Due to the way the calendar fell, 2013 had slightly less than four weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas (when the bulk of holiday programming is aired), down from 2012’s season that was just shy of five weeks between the two holidays. However, since Christmas comes just once a year, we’ll have to hold out for next December to see if this trend continues.


*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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