Will BARB flounder under flood of new technology?

Satellite, cable, digital and now interactive – TV is changing rapidly, and BARB must find an effective way of measuring the new services.

It’s crunch time for BARB, and for the half-dozen research companies bidding to win a slice of its next TV audience measurement contract, starting in January 2002. The final specification is expected to go out this week, incorporating the increases in the panel size just agreed with BARB’s shareholders and key customers – the broadcasters, advertisers and agencies.

The new panel will have 5,100 homes – a 13 per cent increase on the current 4,500 – and there’ll be proportionately bigger increases in London and the Midlands. BARB chief executive Caroline McDevitt plans to announce the award of the contract next month.

What’s clear is that the winning company, or companies, will face a vastly more complex task than those handling the current contract, Taylor Nelson Sofres and RSMB. Any doubts about that were dispelled at last week’s Marketing Week-backed TV 2000 conference in Lisbon – where a string of presentations demonstrated just how rapidly the television world is changing.

Not only is digital TV growing much faster than had been forecast, through three different delivery systems – satellite, terrestrial and cable – but so is the use of the Internet and other technologies, such as ADSL, which will soon be bringing high-quality pictures and sound to the home. Interactive services – programmes, advertising and shopping – such as those offered by Open, will need to be measured, together with the Electronic Programme Guides and the new disc-based recording systems, such as DVD, Tivo and Replay, that will allow viewers to record and play back up to 30 hours of material.

“Future-proofing the BARB service will require us to negotiate a very flexible BARB contract for the years 2002 to 2009,” McDevitt told the TV 2000 audience. Alongside the core measurement service, providing minute-by-minute ratings among the main audience groups for the bigger channels, she suggested new measuring systems would have to be introduced to help the researchers keep pace with the huge changes.

“We may not have a single unitary metering system. We will have a core system, but we we will also need ancillary systems to measure viewing out of home, viewing on PCs, and viewing of small sub-groups and specialist universes.”

She also reminded the conference just how much BARB has changed during the lifetime of the current contract, which began in 1991. New elements include timeshift viewing through VCRs, the demographics of guest viewers, growing samples of cable and satellite viewers, cable-only reporting, and the measurement and reporting of digital satellite viewing.

That still leaves some problems unsolved, even before the new contract starts in 2002. Measuring digital viewing, for example, is particularly complex because a single broadcast frequency can now carry a number of digital channels, each of which has to be identified by the electronic meter. With co-operation from BSkyB, BARB has developed a probe for the Sky set-top box to make measurement possible, but it’s less easy for digital terrestrial and cable. BARB has found a solution for measuring ONdigital but digital cable remains a problem.

However, in Lisbon, both Sky and another multichannel broadcaster, Flextech, made clear their dissatisfaction with aspects of the BARB service.

Graham Appleby of Sky raised one perennial issue of dispute – the fact that BARB does not measure out-of-home viewing, in places such as pubs, which means it vastly understates the audience for Sky’s football coverage, and for the commercials. McDevitt said out-of-home viewing was being investigated.

Flextech sales director Mark Howe accused BARB of failing to keep up with the changes. He argued that digital TV was not just an extension of terrestrial TV, offering more channels, but a new medium offering genuine interactivity, video on demand, e-mail and home shopping.

McDevitt disputed that BARB was falling behind, setting out what it had achieved already and how extensively it was consulting the industry in its search of the optimum solutions to the new problems.

But perhaps the biggest problem facing BARB is not the measurement of the different channels and services, but finding enough “typical” households to ensure a balanced panel of 5,100 homes. As homes get more TV sets, PCs and recording equipment, and a greater array of distribution platforms and channels, the variations in viewing patterns are exploding.

What makes the problem worse is the lengthy switchover from analogue to digital transmission. Culture Secretary Chris Smith has set a target period of 2006 to 2010 for analogue to be switched off, but in Lisbon Channel 5 chief executive David Elstein argued compellingly that it will take much longer – until 2013 or 2019 perhaps.

And that means BARB must measure both systems for as long as it takes.

When I wrote about the Lottery (MW March 9), the headline and introduction did not reflect what was in the article. I wrote that Camelot and the People’s Lottery had promised a 50 per cent increase in the money going to good causes – not that they needed a 50 per cent increase in profits. Apologies if you were confused.

Torin Douglas is media correspondent for BBC News

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