Torin Douglas: TV viewers flood back, but were they really missing?

The criticism of BARB’s TV viewing figures has led advertisers to seek other forms of measurement. But sometimes better the devil you know, says Torin Douglas

The missing millions are back. The viewers that appeared to have abandoned TV in their droves over New Year and the following weeks – at least, according to BARB – are now tuning in again.

The five per cent drop in December viewing reported by the new BARB system – and the even sharper falls in overnight viewing at the start of the New Year – have been followed by an eight per cent increase in January. This means that average viewing is over 25 hours per person per week. Many 16to 34-year-olds, whose viewing had dropped more sharply, are also watching again – their viewing levels have gone up by 13 per cent, back to their December levels. And the latest figures, for the week ending February 10, show the highest viewing levels so far this year – 25.59 hours per week – helped in part by the success of ITV1’s Pop Idol.

The question is, did viewers really stop watching in previous weeks or were they mislaid by the BARB measurement system and its rookie panel members? It’s a question of more than academic interest, not least because the recovery in viewing cannot disguise the fact that big changes are happening in audiences of individual channels and in individual regions.

As I predicted at the start of the year (MW January 10), the TV business has had a lively couple of months, while the BARB system finds its feet. The press has had a field day reporting the delays in its publication of data; the huge early falls in ITV’s viewing; and the collapse in Channel 4’s 16to 34-year-old audience. But it has all helped to confirm – if confirmation were needed – the vital need for accurate, universally accepted measurement. If there were no BARB, you’d have to invent it.

Take one of the most glaring criticisms to emerge in recent weeks – the assertion by Carat that BARB was underestimating Coronation Street’s audience by more than 3 million viewers (MW January 31). The media agency’s own research – specially commissioned to check the accuracy of the new data – suggested that 14.5 million viewers had watched a particular Friday episode. It said the BARB figure had been 11.2 million, compared with 12.3 million for the equivalent episode a year ago.

As Marketing Week reported, the findings suggested that “ITV could be missing out on up to &£39.5m a year in ad revenue from the Street’s centre break” – demonstrating just how much money is riding on the accuracy of the BARB system. Carat had a particular interest in the programme – its client Cadbury is the sponsor.

This Carat research could have been dynamite, blowing BARB’s credibility as the “gold standard” trading currency to smithereens. In practice, it has had, if anything, the opposite effect – demonstrating the potential dangers, and costs, of trying to replicate an industry-sponsored, electronically-metered panel system (to which Carat is a party through its membership of the IPA, one of the BARB shareholders) with one-off ad-hoc telephone polls.

BARB’s response to the Carat research received a good deal less coverage than the original story, but it goes to the heart of the debate. According to the Marketing Week report, Carat interviewed 1,400 people by telephone over the weekend after the Friday episode (compared with the 9,000 people in homes measured by BARB, even on its under-strength panel). The BARB statement suggests that, in its reporting of the findings, Carat did not make a like-with-like comparison. The statement says: “The BARB audience figure quoted – 11.2 million – refers to the average audience throughout the duration of the programme – that is, the average number watching at any one time. The telephone research finding is – at best – more closely aligned to an estimate of ‘reach’ – that is, how many people claimed to have seen any part of the episode.

“The BARB figure for the total number of adults viewing at least one minute of this episode on ITV1 is 13.3 million. The telephone poll is also likely to include viewers who watched the same episode shown later at 10pm on ITV2. Together with the ITV1 episode this gives a total reach estimate of 13.7 million. On this more comparable basis the difference is 0.8 million – not the 3.3 million as stated. The BARB figures are for ‘live’ viewing… Some playback viewing may well have been given credit in the telephone poll. Furthermore, it is recognised that recall research of this type is likely to overstate viewing claims, as some respondents will state their usual viewing behaviour and not necessarily what they have actually viewed.”

In other words, the Carat figure was surprisingly close to that of BARB. The BARB situation remains serious. The panel will not be up to its full size for several months and the smaller regions and smaller channels are producing very variable results – to the extent that some are discussing further action. But anyone contemplating alternatives should remember the cautionary verse of Hilaire Belloc: “Always keep a-hold of Nurse for fear of finding something worse.”

Torin Douglas is media correspondent for BBC News

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