Arguments rage over BARB future

There is disagreement over the funding of BARB, and what its role should be in the multichannel digital age. Stephanie Bentley looks at the issues involved.

BARB, the TV audience measurement system, is facing a turbulent future over who pays for it and who decides what it does.

The three main groups who fund it – the BBC, ITV and the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising (IPA) representing the media buying agencies – are arguing over who pays what proportion of BARB’s 9.25m annual cost.

And time is running out. BARB’s contract with its research suppliers ends next August. There is a rolling contract until August 2000, but according to sources, methods of funding for those subsequent two years have not been resolved.

Lynne Robinson, research director of the IPA, maintains: “The future of BARB is secure, at least for the time being.”

But with digital TV and the anticipated explosion in the number of channels on the horizon, chief executive John Fox is under increasing pressure to renegotiate who pays for BARB and who has what influence on its board.

One observer says: “There is a massive argument going on between the BBC, ITV and the IPA about who pays for what proportion of the remaining part of the contract (to the year 2000). The BBC in particular is making very strong suggestions that it doesn’t need BARB in such detail. Everything is sorted out up to August 1998 but the final two years have still to be arranged.

“If they don’t come to an arrangement about who pays what, support for BARB could start to crumble.”

At the moment BARB measures about 35 channels. Within 18 months, there could be nearer 300. According to another agency research head: “Some quite radical views are coming out. There is one argument that we have got to invest lots more money in BARB, while other organisations are saying we have got too much data and that we have got to make BARB simpler.”

At the same time, the agencies represented by the IPA – many of whom are investing ever more time and cash in their own proprietary research – are growing restive at what they say are the rising costs of BARB.

They want to spend less on BARB (for some it is more than 150,000 a year) to channel into their own research, which they say tells them things BARB can’t, such as what effect an advertisement has, if it has changed consumers’ attitudes or if they are more likely to buy the product.

The Incorporated Society of British Advertisers (ISBA), which has repeatedly been refused representation on the BARB board, has put out a questionnaire to all its members asking for their views. Bob Wootton, ISBA media services director, refuses to comment on what he says is “work in progress”.

Yet BARB is still widely recognised as one of the best systems of its kind in the world, and because it is the industry currency used by buyers and sellers, it is hard to see any alternatives. BARB supporters often point out that annual costs may well be just over 9m, but those overheads underpin 2.5bn of TV advertising revenue a year.

Earlier this year, it emerged that BARB wanted a small fee for supplying advertisers with data on companies outside their own market (clients get BARB figures on their own campaigns or those of their competitors free, from their media agencies).

It is now asking its subscribers outside the IPA (mostly smaller companies such as consultants, research companies and sports sponsorship agencies) to pay a scale of fees based on a new ratecard. It has terminated all existing contracts, many of which were negotiated several years ago and had no standard format. Unfortunately the advent of the ratecard has prompted yet more turbulence over rising costs.

But it is the present row between the main bodies which fund BARB that is causing the biggest headache. As a non-profit making organisation, the vast majority of BARB’s work is paid for by ITV (about 35 per cent), and the BBC and the IPA (roughly 25 per cent each).

The BBC’s role in this latest funding arrangement – established in 1991 – has long been a source of disagreement because BARB is there largely as a tool for advertisers, but with the BBC needing to cut costs everywhere, it has become an even more contentious issue.

The BARB board includes three BBC directors, three from ITV, one from Channel 4, one from the IPA and one from the satellite broadcasters, but this structure will change as the proportion of funding changes, with new players such as Channel 5 and cable on the scene.

Bill Meredith, director of BARB, denies that these negotiations over “who pays the piper and who calls the tune” will affect the service.

But one source says: “The people at BARB are not allowed to sneeze until the board says they can. Every single product will be costed.

“There are a number of proposals which would improve BARB, but if this involved, for example, putting more resources into cable and satellite research, would ITV want to pay?”

Anthony Jones, head of CIA MediaLab, says: “We fundamentally support the idea of one industry currency. The last thing that we would want is to be left without any audience research or with cracks appearing and BARB falling to bits.

“However, as we approach the arrival of digital and the continued increase in the number of TV channels, it is vital that BARB develops sooner rather than later.”

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