The essence of farce is to have the main characters trying desperately to project seamless respectability in public, while squabbling bitterly in private as their trousers fall around their ankles, and scantily dressed ladies pile up in every hiding place on the stage. On this basis the record books are wrong in claiming the longest running farce in London as “No sex please, we’re British”. The real champion, with a run as long as “The Mousetrap”, is “No rethinking please, we’re researchers”, also known as the National Readership Survey.
The NRS fulfils every requirement of the classical farce. It positively oozes respectability. Its executives miss no opportunity of proclaiming it as “the gold standard” of research, and indeed, its population estimates are generally accepted as authoritative by market researchers.
Unfortunately, it suffers from an embarrassment, equivalent to the unclothed lady hiding in the closet. The methodology of the survey actually fails to produce readership figures in a form which would allow advertisers to judge what they are getting for their money in terms of impact. Furthermore, because the various components of the NRS – the newspapers, magazines and agencies – are in a state of virtually continuous warfare, there is little likelihood of agreement ever being reached on sensible improvements. Instead, as in all the best farces, a vast unstable edifice of expediency has been constructed, which is desperately shored up as it is hit by each new external disaster.
The present plight of the NRS is a product of its history. Its origins were primarily political – the newspapers and agencies staged a coup to take over the existing Hulton survey, which they believed unduly favoured magazines – but strenuous efforts were made to produce state-of-the-art research. In the Fifties, when pagination was low, circulations were large, titles were limited and reader loyalty was unquestioning, these efforts proved fairly successful. Unfortunately, none of these conditions hold now. Newspapers, particularly at weekends, have become gigantic, the market has fragmented and journals generally are increasingly becoming impulse purchases.
Of course, there have been changes to NRS research techniques over the past 40 years, but they have been largely cosmetic. The essence is that advertisers are still told only the figure for (quarterly or longer) average readership per issue of the journal in which their ad appeared. Since day-to-day readership changes can be quite significant, and pagination – and therefore the chance that a particular ad will be seen – varies dramatically, such a figure is at best a very rough approximation of potential impacts and at worst can be systematically misleading.
These problems are to some extent recognised, and interminable discussions are held between the interested parties, to seek solutions. Unfortunately, we have now reached the point where only radical rethinking of the purpose and technique of collecting readership data can help, and if anyone were to design a body incapable of reaching radical conclusions about anything, he or she could do no better than employ the NRS as a template.
One constant factor since the Fifties is that magazines and newspapers tend to have markedly different interests, and another is that there is internecine warfare between different national newspaper groups.
The result has been deadlock on proposals to reform the new NRS contract, which has already slipped two years behind schedule. New ideas keep being advanced to find a solution acceptable to all parties. The latest, recently put forward by the newspapers, is called PML. It is likely to be attacked by specialised magazines when work out just what effect it will have on their reported readership.
If progress is impossible, one might well wonder how readership research can save itself. Luckily a study of the structure of farces provides the answer. The main players are in constant terror of some authority figure from whom the ever growing list of blunders and embarrassments must be kept hidden. It seems impossible, but the happy ending results from the fact that this character turns out to be unobservant to the point of stupidity and accepts as true all the ludicrous explanations he is offered.
In the field of readership research, this of course brings us to the advertiser. The happy endings for many media are due to the fact that few advertisers have bothered to discover what audience figures really mean. They are concerned solely with the level of discount their agencies negotiate, never asking: “Discounts from what, for what?” With a bit of luck, the people who pay for advertising may well fail to notice that the researchers have no trousers, and the farce can continue playing for ever more.