Who will watch what we watch once digital television goes live?

How do you stop AGB winning another BARB contract? Change its name to Taylor Nelson Sofres. (Or, if you want a different company altogether, make sure its rivals feel they have a good chance of toppling it.)

Whatever it calls itself, AGB’s 30-year reign as television’s scorer is about to be extended for another three years. The new BARB contract was due to begin in two months, but some time ago, the industry sensibly decided to delay the decision until the digital future seemed a bit clearer and new audience-measurement techniques had been developed.

Already, however, the race for the next contract – starting in January 2002 – is hotting up, as the industry gets to grips with the realisation that, in the digital age, measuring TV audiences and buying airtime will be a nightmare.

Those involved in BARB are determined to make the existing contractor face real competition when tenders are invited early next year. New meters and handsets are being tested, designed to cope with literally hundreds of digital channels in the new Millennium.

As we know, Taylor Nelson AGB (as its letterhead still calls it) is making a bold bid to regain the business, which AGB has held since 1968. Its “revolutionary” new system – PictureMatching – is designed to cope with the fundamental problem of digital television, namely, that several channels are carried on a single frequency, which means existing audience-meters – that record the individual frequency for each channel – won’t work.

The PictureMatching solution is to record a sample of the TV picture in each panel household to work out which channel is being watched at any time. It may sound improbable, but Taylor Nelson AGB insists it can cope with hundreds of channels and rapid switches from channel to channel. Already the system has been launched in Canada and Israel and the company is now beating the drum for it here in its all-important home market.

But BARB is reluctant to tie itself to a solution that only one contractor can provide. It also wants to ensure that planners, buyers and sellers finally come to terms with audience fragmentation, which has resulted in dozens of channels recording such small audiences that spot-by-spot measurement is virtually useless.

The latest BARB thinking has been revealed to the Media Research Group by two of those on its Contract Tender Working Party, Hugh Johnson of Channel 4 and Sue Read of ITV. They say flexibility, simplicity and – where possible – the consolidation of information will be the watchwords for the new contract. Otherwise, they fear, buyers and planners will find themselves swimming through an ocean of increasingly useless data.

The system is already creaking. One problem has been with “guest viewing”, which – according to the ratings – was about 12 per cent lower than it ought to be. Though BARB does not measure “out-of-home” viewing (in pubs and clubs), it does attempt to record the number – and demographic make-up – of all the guests gathered in one home to watch the football or the Friends special.

One factor contributing to under-reporting, says Read, was the peoplemeter handset and the cumbersome way in which guests were required to register their presence and profile, each tapping in their age and sex.

“We’re now piloting a new handset that is more user-friendly” says Read. “It can cope with up to 99 guests and has separate buttons for each age-group and sex – pink buttons for the girls, and blue for the boys.”

The test – in 50 homes around the UK – is starting in time for the World Cup, when guest viewing is traditionally high.

Another experiment is about to begin in Manchester, where Arbitron & Continental Research are to test a totally new type of peoplemeter, which can measure both television and radio consumption. It requires each station to transmit an audio signal, which cannot be heard by listeners or viewers but can be picked up by the meters. The meter – instead of being attached to the set – is attached to the listener or viewer, thus recording all their listening and viewing, whether in the kitchen, the bedroom, the car or the pub.

The Personal Portable Meter (as it’s called) is the size of a pager, and each panellist is required to put it in a “docking station” at night, to recharge it and transmit the data to a central processing site.

“It’s ideal for the digital environment, and it does away with the need to record guest viewing,” says John Clemens of Arbitron & Continental. “We’re planning to start testing it in 25 homes in Manchester in September, and we’re pretty confident we’ll have the co-operation of most of the broadcasters in the area – subject to their engineers’ approval.”

A third alternative to the Personal Portable Meter and PictureMatching is to put a video code on each channel, which can be picked up by a meter. This system has been tested by SRI in Philadelphia, which may well launch a bid for the UK contract.

But quite apart from the technological solutions, BARB must also help the industry learn to live with the mass of minute-by-minute, spot-by-spot, demographic-by-demographic detail, thrown up by a system which already has more than 50 channels, most with tiny audiences.

“In spite of this, the industry still adheres to the concept of minute-by-minute analysis and trading on individual commercials,” says Johnson. “When small-rating channels are viewed for as little as ten minutes a week, this is clearly a nonsensical and uneconomic way to trade.

What? Abandon spot-by-spot measurement? BARB really is thinking the unthinkable. Why, it’ll be taking the contract away from AGB next.

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