The news that ITV has recorded its lowest weekly share of the TV audience since the new BARB contract began in 1991 is disturbing for advertisers and ITV companies alike. It was also entirely predictable. It may be a “temporary blip”, as the Network Centre described it, but there will be more blips to come.
For although the BBC may be congratulating itself on ITV’s bad week and BBC2’s good one, the most significant figure was that recorded by the satellite and cable stations (or “other viewing” as BARB calls it). At 9.4 per cent of total viewing, it is the highest figure so far. ITV took 33.8 per cent, BBC1 30.1 per cent, BBC2 14.1 per cent (helped by the cricket and World Athletics Championships) and Channel 4 achieved 12.6 per cent.
ITV has taken its bad news on the chin. It says the summer is a season when it “tries out new programmes and takes risks with new ideas”. It’s also a matter of record that non-terrestrial viewing tends to increase in the school holidays, thanks to the profusion of children’s programmes and the large proportion of children in satellite and cable homes. Overnight figures for the following week suggest that ITV’s share went back up to 35.2 per cent.
What ITV has not done, thankfully, is cast doubt on the measurement system, as some contractors have in the past when times were hard. But as BARB tries to cope with new channels and new multi-channel homes, the pressure on it from interested parties will inevitably grow.
Up till now, any complaints have tended to come from non-terrestrial channels. They have claimed that their viewing has been under-represented by BARB. Now that multi-channel viewing is heading for a ten per cent share of the audience the cries of “foul” may start to come from the more established channels.
At the moment, it is the cable channels that feel their needs are not being met. Their concern encapsulates the coming debate over the future of TV measurement – focussing on the next BARB contract due in 1998. At the heart of this lies the problem posed by the inevitable growth in the number of channels and multi-channel homes. The fragmentation of viewing makes audiences harder and more expensive to measure – even without the complication of digital channels, for which, I’m told, reliable measurement techniques have yet to be developed.
About 800 of the 4,435 homes on the BARB panel are multi-channel homes. This figure is increasing as the penetration of cable and satellite TV grows. But although homes are selected to be representative of multi-channel viewers as a whole, they are not designed to reflect the separate viewing habits of cable homes and satellite homes.
Some people in the cable business claim that multi-channel viewing is higher in cable homes than in satellite ones. If this is the case, it is not fully reflected in the BARB ratings. The non-terrestrial channels may have already reached a ten per cent share of viewing without us knowing.
The cable business does not make these claims very loudly because it is not convinced of the robustness of its figures. The evidence comes partly from ad hoc surveys conducted by various cable operators and channel providers, and partly from special analysis of BARB figures.
Last month, Continental Research revealed in Marketing Week’s Satellite Watch that, in June, 36 per cent of viewing in cable homes was of non-terrestrial channels, whereas in dish homes it was 34 per cent. The company said that cable-only channels accounted for seven or eight per cent of all non-terrestrial viewing.
The figure may be small but, if it is a true reflection of what is happening month by month, it will become increasingly significant as cable’s penetration grows. Cable already has more than 1 million homes – roughly a quarter of the BARB multi-channel universe. Some cable companies would like to conduct industry-approved research to allow viewing in cable and satellite homes to be measured, compared and contrasted, channel by channel.
“We need an audience currency that is acceptable to advertisers, channel owners and cable operators” says Live TV sales director Jane Wroe. “At present, BARB doesn’t provide that. And while we are hoping to influence the specification for the next BARB contract in 1998, we would like to establish our own diary survey, probably in the new year.”
Such a move makes sense to cable operators and cable-only channels, but those running channels that reach viewers via both cable and satellite are less convinced. One sales director says the BARB figures for multi-channel homes are “Robust and give me exactly what I need to trade with ad agencies. I don’t think we need to reinvent the wheel”.
Looking further ahead, some of those who will be involved in the award of the next BARB contract are doubtful about the cable industry’s proposals. Not least of the problems is money. The cable operators have yet to approve a budget for the diary survey, let alone enough to get them a place at the table around which the BARB contract will be discussed.
The BBC has announced its wish to reduce its contribution to the next BARB service. Head of research Sue Stoessl told one industry meeting that it was time to put an end to the licence fee payer subsidising the ad industry.
ITV and the other BARB paymasters are not prepared to make up the difference. But the increasing complexity of the measurement service means the cost of the 1998 contract is bound to go up, rather down.
Squaring this circle is a priority. It is already leading to imaginative proposals and a more flexible attitude on the part of many of the research’s users.
One of the present contractors, AGB Television, has suggested reducing the size of the “core” panel – which have the all-singing, all-dancing peoplemeters – from 4,435 to 2,500. This would then be supplemented by 7,500 homes with the less-sophisticated set-meters, which record what channel is being watched and when but not “who” was watching. AGB has suggested these homes could be taken from its existing Superpanel – used to measure consumption of fmcg products. This would enable companies to directly relate ad exposure to consumption.
Many find this idea attractive, although one of those close to BARB has described it as a non-starter. The real challenge is to find a scheme that can cope with the hundreds of digital channels promised by Rupert Murdoch and others.
At that stage, ITV – and its advertisers – may yearn for the days when the biggest commercial channel had “only” 33.8 per cent of viewing.
Torin Douglas is BBC Radio’s media correspondent.