BARB still needs to measure up

The imminence of the TV Barcelona conference is reason enough to dust down a number of recently neglected media topics, prime among them the obsolescent BARB measurement system.

But in BARB’s case, grist has been added to the mill by a more pressing agenda: the runaway success of Sky Digital Television. Already 350,000 homes have been signed up and the new target for October, which many believe is obtainable, is 1 million. This, of course, is a highly significant viewing statistic. There are, after all, only 23 million TV households in the UK. Yet BARB, as presently constituted, will be unable to measure the Sky digital households for two reasons.

First, digital broadcasting relies upon a rapid repetition of programmes, known in the trade as shuttlecasting. This phenomenon makes it difficult to record, for example, peak-time traffic. A more crippling problem is that multiple digital channels are carried on the same frequency. And the audience measuring meters are unable to separate them out.

Just as well, then, for BARB’s incoming chief executive Caroline McDevitt that the 11m TV audience research contract goes out for tender in the next few weeks. That way the thorny subject of how to deal with the multichannel world will at least get a timely public airing.

But healthy debate is one thing, finding a solution quite another. BARB only squeaked through its last methodological reform after a barrage of industry criticism. This time, the task of winning general approval will be even tougher.

Other than having to tackle the technical issues mentioned above, BARB will be under heavy pressure to increase its sample size, already a burdensome 4,500 households. Frankly, it will be damned if it does, damned if it doesn’t.

A substantial increase in sampled households would seem, on the face of it, the only sound means of ensuring that ratings on ever proliferating niche channels are accurately recorded. Yet who will bear the cost of all this retooling? Not ITV and the BBC, which currently own BARB. After all, what interest have they in researching their rivals’ ratings? Who then? Channel 4, Channel 5, BSkyB, Flextech and the IPA – but only up to a point, and that point is likely to fall short of fully subsidising a suitably enhanced sample size.

If, on the other hand, BARB washes its hands of the sample problem – in effect telling the multichannel owners to use existing data in a more creative way – it will be in danger of digging its own grave. There will come a day when the existing approach is so stretched by changed circumstances that it will no longer merit mainstream industry acceptance. As Torin Douglas observes, what BARB needs is a future-proof solution. We await with interest to hear what that is.

Torin Douglas, page 19

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