Torin Douglas : BARB set for sea-change as new meter is installed

All eyes will be on BARB for the next 15 months to evaluate how well its ‘non-intrusive’ meter and new ratings team are measuring our viewing habits.

As the BBC enters the era of Not The Nine O’Clock News, all eyes will be on the Broadcasters’ Audience Research Board (BARB) ratings that will determine whether or not its audacious move will be allowed to stick.

The BBC chairman Sir Christopher Bland has said the Corporation’s governors will be watching closely to see if the switch to ten o’clock leads to a fall in news audiences. So will the Government. If the ratings drop significantly, the move could be reversed.

It’s a reminder of the crucial role the BARB plays in the business and politics of broadcasting. BARB is, quite simply, the single most important arbiter of television success and failure. Its figures not only act as a trading currency for the sale of airtime but help evaluate every programme and scheduling decision.

When ITV’s then chief executive Richard Eyre published a target for the reversal of the network’s ratings decline, he was placing his faith in BARB as the measure of his policy’s success. And when the Independent Television Commission sat in judgment on the results, and concluded that ITV had been found wanting, it was BARB that provided the main data.

Neither side, to the best of my knowledge, queried the accuracy of the figures.

Yet in a year’s time, the accuracy – or otherwise – of the BARB ratings will become a hot topic when the method by which they are compiled faces upheaval. Not only is the main research contractor being changed after more than 30 years, but the entire panel of viewing homes will be scrapped, to be replaced by a new – and considerably larger – one.

At the time this was announced in May, BARB had little to say beyond a terse press statement. This was a wise policy. Some might have looked askance at the fact that it was replacing the main contractor – the long-established Taylor Nelson Sofres – with a Swiss/Italian company called AGB, which did not even have an office in the UK.

Now, however, BARB is prepared to talk. Last week it began a series of presentations to key broadcasters and airtime buyers, unveiling the system that will take effect from the start of 2002. In the futuristic surroundings of a Covent Garden venue called Nutopia, chief executive Caroline McDevitt introduced the team which will track our changing viewing habits in the digital, multi-channel, multi-set, interactive, electronically-programme-guided world.

Most are familiar. BARB research director Tony Wearn has spent a lifetime in audience research, at the BBC and elsewhere, as has Tony Twyman, the BARB consultant. Steve Wilcox and Alan Yates of RSMB have been at the heart of the BARB contract since 1989, involved in designing the system and panel sample and maintaining quality control. And Roger Gane of IPSOS-RSL, which handles the RAJAR and National Readership Survey contracts, is now in charge of conducting the BARB Establishment Surveys. But the company which will actually measure the viewing and report the results to subscribers is new. It’s called ATR UK (standing for Advanced Television Research) and is part of the international AGB Group – not to be confused with the UK company of the same name which used to handle the BARB contract. AGB’s chief operating officer Antonella Petra says that when its contracts in Australia and the UK take effect (from January 2001 in Australia and January 2002 here) it will be the largest supplier of television audience measurement in the world, with 25,000 metered homes.

The key figures in the company, apart from Petra, are ATR’s managing director Adam Phillips and operations director Alan Evans. They’re now setting up shop in new offices in the Strand, and last week made their first public appearance with their new meter.

It’s a clever piece of kit, which it needs to be in the digital era. It can identify all analogue and digital channels, as well as videos and DVDs, videogames, teletext and other information sources, the Electronic Programme Guide, many interactive services and other uses of the television.

The meter has a tuner inside it, connected to the same aerial as the TV, and it scans all incoming analogue signals, comparing them with what’s on the set. For digital viewing, it has three other measurement methods, to cope with Sky, ONdigital and cable.

Importantly, the meter is “non-intrusive” – which means it doesn’t have to be connected to the inside of the TV set – and its software can be upgraded over the telephone, throughout the contract period. It means the meters can be installed quickly and easily, without too much disruption to the panel homes – and that’s vital in a period of dynamic change. The number of SkyDigital homes on the panel has more than doubled this year already, to 601, reflecting the growing penetration of digital TV – and that pace must be maintained if the Government is to achieve its aim of turning the whole nation digital. Yet however clever the meter, it’s only as effective as the panel of homes in which it’s installed, and the accuracy with which that reflects the viewing population at large. This month, BARB will start recruiting 5,100 homes for its new panel, entirely from scratch. It intends to install the meters by next June, test the new system for three months and then run it in parallel with the old one for a further three months – to compare the results.

Tony Wearn freely admits the figures will differ and is giving users plenty of notice. “The activity over the next 15 months will allow us to evaluate those differences that will inevitably arise between the two parallel systems” he told key users of the BARB data last week. “During the summer of next year, we will be able to identify any fundamental differences – and by this time next year we should be able to report in more detail on any change that will affect your key audiences.”

You have been warned.

Torin Douglas is media correspondent for BBC News

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