The bongs may toll for BARB if it concentrates on small fry

As the bongs tolled and the tears and champagne flowed last Friday night, a new suspect was fingered by old News at Ten hands. Former ITN editor Sir David Nicholas questioned the role of Sir Michael Checkland, former BBC director general and now a member of the Independent Television Commission, which signed News at Ten’s death warrant.

“It would be like giving Rommel a say in disbanding the Eighth Army,” said Nicholas, who had campaigned – with other ageing knights and peers of the ITV realm – to persuade the ITC to save News at Ten.

Checkland joins a lengthy list of “guilty men”: sundry bosses and executives, past and present, of ITV and the ITC; plus, those money-grubbing advertisers. But the person who first suggested News at Ten should go – here in Marketing Week – has received neither credit nor blame. As delegates arrive this week at TV ’99 in Barcelona, some may recall that the seeds of News at Ten’s demise were sown at TV ’87 in Copenhagen. Brian Jacobs, then media director of Leo Burnett, now running Carat International, published a discussion paper analysing the reasons for ITV’s catastrophic ratings decline.

Jacobs called for radical changes: a central ITV scheduling supremo, to replace the committee of “Big Five” programme controllers; the moving of News at Ten to give greater flexibility post-nine o’clock; and the use of recognised scheduling and promotional techniques, then scorned by ITV. All have now come to pass, a mere 12 years on.

One traditional Aunt Sally has not been blamed for the death of News at Ten.

The ratings system, BARB, is a ready scapegoat when programmes face the axe. It was blamed for the closure of ITV’s Night Network in 1989, and for some of the early difficulties of Channel 4. Two weeks ago I reported the grievances of Granada Sky Broadcasting, which thinks BARB is inadequate for the measurement of small channels in the digital age.

I said one problem was the current BARB meters can’t measure digital viewing, because there is more than one channel on each frequency. And promised to report on possible “future-proof” solutions for the new TV research contract, starting in 2002.

After that piece appeared, my phone rang hot. Bill Meredith of BARB pointed out that while I had explained it already had a temporary solution, MW’s leading article had not reflected this. Mike Kirkham, of the researcher Taylor Nelson Sofres, went further, saying current meters can measure digital viewing – but only in conjunction with PictureMatching, the process developed by his company specifically to answer the digital problem. And Arbitron rang to make sure I was aware of its pioneering experiments with new personal portable meters.

There is no shortage of potential solutions. The question is which one will best meet the needs – and cost restraints – of BARB and the broadcasters that primarily pay for the 11m a year contract. TNS’s PictureMatching solution is to record a sample of the picture on the panellists’ TV screens, and then to match them against every channel to work out what’s been watched. Improbably complex, but TNS insists it can cope with hundreds of channels and very rapid switches from channel to channel.

The system is being used on the BARB panel in homes that are hard to monitor, such as those with an above-average ownership of TVs, VCRs and multichannel decoders.

But BARB and the broadcasters are reluctant to tie themselves to a system owned by the company which has handled the industry’s ratings for more than 30 years. They favour a second system, which requires each TV channel to broadcast a signal that can be picked up by a standard meter, so more research companies could bid for the contract. A similar system is being tested in Manchester by the US company Arbitron. All the local and national TV and radio stations are taking part, transmitting an inaudible signal on their output. The difference is that instead of being picked up by a conventional meter on the TV set, it uses a new pager-sized personal meter that the panellists carry round with them (complete with a motion sensor to make sure they’re wearing it!). It can thus measure out-of-home viewing and listening.

One disadvantage is that if a broadcaster refuses to put out a signal, it won’t be measured. Jay Guither, Arbitron’s vice-president in the UK, doesn’t believe that is a major problem. “If you want your channel measured and this is the accepted way to do it, you’ll take part,” he says.

But already some channels – such as CNN – choose not to take part in BARB, partly because of cost, partly because it doesn’t meet their needs. (In CNN’s case, much of its viewing is in hotel rooms.) At present BARB can list viewing to such channels as “other viewing”.

Another drawback from BARB’s point of view is that the Arbitron system – like PictureMatching – belongs to the research company, which would gain greater power in the contract negotiations. BARB is testing its own system, working with broadcasters to put out a signal that could be picked up by more conventional meters.

Another key question is whether everything BARB currently measures is necessary. Kirkham says: “We are the only country in the world that measures timeshift viewing of video. It accounts for just three per cent of viewing, yet costs a great deal more, because you have to have two sets of ratings – the overnights, and the consolidated figures, adding in the video viewing.”

With digital TV, the potential for measuring such “extra” information is huge – and so is the cost. If too much of BARB’s money goes into measuring small audiences, it will reduce its accuracy on the big audiences – such as those for the new programmes replacing News at Ten. And that really would be a problem.

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