TV industry rattled by BARB shake-up

According to BARB, TV audiences are dropping sharply. But are these new figures accurate? Or is BARB’s revamp to blame?

The revamp of the BARB (Broadcasters’ Audience Research Board) viewing panel has made TV planners and buyers feel as though they are trapped in a plane, flying without a navigation system, desperately trying to reach a tangible destination.

They are struggling to make sense of figures provided under the new BARB contract, which shows that TV viewing is down 12 per cent and ITV1 viewing down 30 per cent year on year for the first three days of 2002, as first reported in Marketing Week (MW January 17).

They also fear that, if viewing figures continue to drop alongside an expected fall in advertising revenues, there could be a return to advertising inflation on ITV1. The price of TV advertising is governed by supply and demand. When supply – audience levels – falls, this has an inflationary effect on prices, while falling demand from advertisers has a deflationary effect.

According to “live” BARB data figures (which exclude time-shift viewing), compiled by Starcom Motive for all adults for January 1 to January 16, Channel 4 has also seen its impacts fall by 11.8 per cent compared with the same period last year, and its share of viewing is now 10.7 per cent. ITV1 is down 24.8 per cent with a 25.3 per cent share of viewing and BBC1 is also down 12.3 per cent with a 26.1 per cent share. Channels that have so far gained are BBC2, up 4.1 per cent with a 12.4 per cent share, Channel 5, up 6.8 per cent with a 6.2 per cent share and multi-channel (including satellite and cable), up 10.3 per cent with a 19.4 per cent share of viewing. For the same period, all adult impacts are down 9.7 per cent year on year.

The fall in audience figures reported by BARB would, according to Starcom Motive, effectively negate deflationary pressures brought on by the expected fall in revenues across commercial TV as a whole. It estimates that ITV1 and Channel 4 could therefore be subject to price inflation, while Channel 5 and cable and satellite channels could face price deflation.

Carat broadcast planning director David Peters says: “The last thing we need in a continued advertising recession is to have reported viewing levels down so much year on year.”

Opinion among buyers is split over the sudden drop in adult viewing – some believe it’s not real, while others think the figures throw into question the state of the old panel.

Starcom Motive executive UK buying director Andy Roberts says: “If you look at adult viewing hours in 1991 compared with 2000 there has hardly been a change, when in fact there has been quite a cultural change. We don’t know how poor the old panel was, the theory was that it was running down for sometime.”

Media Planning Group broadcast director Andrew Canter maintains that the rise in multi-channel viewing was apparent at the end of last year. He argues that the fall in total viewing can be explained by sociological changes, such as a rise in popularity of other forms of entertainment like the Internet.

It is the first time that a completely new panel – which started operating from January 1 under the new ten-year BARB contract awarded to ATR – has been set up to record viewing habits since 1968. BARB, a limited company owned by the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5, BSkyB and the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising, decided to recruit a panel from scratch that better reflects today’s multi-channel market and demographics, rather than adapt the old panel set-up when only analogue TV existed.

Peters claims that a number of factors could be responsible for the drop in viewing figures, including the issue of whether the new panel and their guests are pressing the relevant buttons on their handsets to record TV viewing. He points out that the new panel is not yet up to full strength, with only 3,800 reporting homes of the 5,100 strong panel operating. The remainder will come on board in March.

TV buyers are frustrated by the delay over the appointment of a panel, as well as the shortening of a trial run of the new panel alongside the old, and the subsequent suspension of new data until January 14 – all of which have come about as a result of the BARB reorganisation. They say they have had insufficient time to identify the key differences between the two systems.

Henry Lawson, managing director of Donovan Data Systems, the TV market’s trading and data platform says: “It would have been more sensible to keep the old Taylor Nelson Sofres panel running for a while.”

According to Lawson, data has been late and patchy.

Flextech sales managing director Mark Howe says that the changeover between systems has been a “shambles”. He adds: “They {BARB} have had long enough to plan this and someone has screwed up.”

BARB chief executive Caroline McDevitt maintains that the data so far released is robust. She says that it is too early to draw any conclusions from the figures, which have been produced at a time of year when the schedule and viewing is “atypical”. She says that the industry should wait until it has consolidated data for the first four weeks of 2002, due in mid February.

Granada Broadcasting and Enterprises managing director Mick Desmond says: “We aren’t surprised by some of the variances coming through the panel and that ITV1’s audience is down by as much as it is.”

He adds that this January a decision was taken to build the schedule with strong programmes from the end of the month, rather than the beginning.

He claims that the panel will settle down as it did after changes were made ten years ago when total live viewing went up by ten per cent.

However, advertisers such as Toyota and Disneyland Paris’ new theme park, which advertised heavily in the first week of January, are among many waiting for the media agencies to determine the reality behind the new BARB figures.

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