BARB must find new approach to catch digital channel viewers

The revelation by BSkyB that Sky Digital has already signed up 350,000 homes – and its new target is a million by October – poses some intriguing questions: How soon will digital viewing be measured for ratings purposes? And how will it be measured…full stop?

Not only does digital TV bring more channels, many of which show the same programmes over and over again (a phenomenon known as “shufflecasting”). More crucially, the existing BARB audience meters can’t measure digital viewing. They were designed to record the frequency of each analogue channel – but, with digital, several channels are carried on a single frequency and the meters cannot separate them.

This is one of the challenges facing BARB’s new chief executive, Caroline McDevitt. The former commercial director of Westcountry Television has taken over one of broadcasting’s hottest seats just as it’s getting hotter – yet she seems unfazed by the pile of important papers in her in-tray.

Within the next few weeks, BARB will invite tenders for the next TV audience research contract – which, at a current cost of 11m a year, is Britain’s biggest. The current contract is held jointly by RSMB and Taylor Nelson Sofres (formerly known as AGB) and was due to expire in 1998, but was extended for three years because prospects for digital television weren’t clear enough to allow sensible judgments to be made.

The new contract starts in January 2002 and the tender process can no longer be put off. BARB itself is on the point of being restructured, so it better reflects the multi-channel world. If all goes to plan, instead of being owned jointly by the BBC and ITV, it will come under wider ownership, taking in Channel 4, Channel 5, BSkyB, Flextech and the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising.

Reflecting views of smaller channels is vital, as it is not only the new digital channels and multiplex owners who find the current measurement system vexing. Some existing multi-channel players are vocal in their criticism.

Jeff Henry, managing director of Granada Sky Broadcasting, is one such critic. “The BARB ratings are wholly inadequate in a digital age,” he says, citing an occasion last November when American star George Hamilton presented a slot on Granada Breeze, its women’s channel. Henry says it brought the channel lots of publicity – but not, apparently, ratings.

“When we had George Hamilton on, we were receiving more telephone calls than we were registering viewers, according to BARB. It’s impossible. Broadsystem, which takes care of the calls for us, estimated our audience at between 15,000 and 25,000. Yet BARB showed just 1,000.”

Henry says smaller channels must be better measured. “As audiences get smaller and smaller, as niches develop, we have to develop systems that measure them. My ratings possibly depend on nine people in this country on the BARB panel. If a couple of my viewers take their holidays at the same time, our ratings disappear.”

Henry obviously has a point, though it’s not as widely shared as I expected. Lis Howell, vice- president of programming at the Flextech channels, which include Bravo and Living, says she’s happy with BARB’s performance. And McDevitt and BARB’s director Bill Meredith show exasperation at Henry’s criticisms.

“He is wrong,” says Meredith. “BARB has a very big sample indeed – 4,500 homes – and it’s the best sample of TV activity there is. Several thousand people on the panel have a chance to view the GSkyB channels. If only a few choose to do so, I’m afraid that makes Breeze a small channel – but the data is there if you analyse it properly.”

McDevitt points out that when Channel 4 started, it had much lower audiences than people were used to but they were still of value to advertisers: “Small channels have to look at the data in a different way, perhaps by aggregating the data over time and measuring weekly reach and audience profile.”

The irony is that Henry’s company, GSkyB, has two representatives in the high echelons of BARB – Granada and BSkyB. And Sue Read, Granada Media’s director of marketing and research, is an acknowledged authority who sits on the BARB board. She was due to meet Henry this week to discuss the issue.

“I sympathise with Jeff,” she says. “The ratings do vary greatly from week to week – but even if you magnified the BARB panel 20 times you would still get sampling error. It would cost an extortionate amount of money to measure the smaller channels with greater accuracy. So we have to look at them in a different way from those with big audiences and then give people clear advice about how the data can be used in a meaningful and accurate way.”

If GSkyB has a problem with its channels already in millions of homes, imagine how much harder it will be to provide an accurate report of digital viewing. Meredith says BARB won’t do anything until there are 100 digital homes on the panel. At present he estimates there could be 50, if all 350,000 of Sky Digital’s homes are connected. If Sky hits its target of 1 million homes by October, BARB should be measuring digital by then.

But surely the meters can’t measure digital viewing anyway? BARB has come up with a temporary solution. It has reached agreement with Sky to put a probe into Sky Digital boxes in panel homes, linking them into the peoplemeter. But that depends on special software in the box and BARB cannot be sure that, in years to come, other digital companies – such as ONdigital, the cable operators and others as yet unknown – will comply.

For the new contract BARB must find a future-proof solution. And to find out what that might be, I’m afraid you must wait for the next thrilling instalment…

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