Clearer vision is needed to prove BARB’s worth

The troubles with its panel appear to be at an end, but BARB’s newly beefed-up management has far to go in ensuring its systems are effective. By Torin Douglas

The good news for BARB and its customers is that things are almost back to normal. The bad news is that these days there’s no such thing as “normal” in audience research.

It’s 14 months since BARB, the industry’s official ratings provider, introduced a new research contractor, a new meter and an entirely new audience panel, all at once – the most radical shake-up of the ratings system in more than 30 years.

It began badly. On January 1 last year, only 4,000 panel homes were connected – instead of the promised 5,100 – and the new panellists took time to adjust to the system. The overnight ratings were suspended and early figures showed large falls in ITV’s share of viewing and a collapse in Channel 4’s audience of 16to 34-year-olds. Even when the network figures for the mainstream channels settled down, regional ITV companies and multi-channel broadcasters complained of wild fluctuations in their audience figures.

For the most part, such complaints were expressed privately. Since most sides of the industry sit on BARB’s main board or advisory panels, they shared some of the responsibility for the changes. All observed a vow of silence – in public at least – so as not to undermine BARB’s vital status as the “gold standard” of audience research. But behind the scenes, the criticism was vitriolic.

Most users that I’ve spoken to now seem to agree the system is back on track. The panel remains eight per cent below target, at 4,700 homes instead of the planned 5,100, but Caroline McDevitt, BARB’s ever-resilient chief executive, says it reflects the audience better than the old panel: “It’s better geographically, with much larger panels in London and the Midlands. And the multi-channel panel is now 2,100, compared with 1,700”.

The new chairman, Nigel Walmsley – formerly of Carlton, Capital Radio and the Post Office – says user problems have become a rarity: “People did feel wobbly about the system. But now the figures are reflecting a world that we recognise, which is a pretty good test.”

That, of course, is where things should have been 14 months ago, had BARB’s plans for a six-month parallel run of data (comparing the old panel with the new one) ever been fulfilled. But now BARB is looking to move forward again, deciding how best to keep pace with perpetual changes in the way people watch and use television.

Take the audience. One reason BARB is finding it hard to complete its panel is that viewers are constantly changing their equipment, adding a TV set or video recorder here, or a Freeview or Sky+ box there. Only 35 per cent of homes now have just one TV set, and only 56 per cent have the “traditional” channel line-up via analogue terrestrial TV.

The BARB establishment survey, which constantly measures the make-up of the TV audience, currently reports that 13.9 million homes have analogue terrestrial; 162,000 have analogue satellite (intriguing, since Sky has gone entirely digital and no longer broadcasts in analogue); 1.2 million have analogue cable; 1.1 million digital terrestrial; 6.3 million digital satellite; and 2.2 million digital cable.

Nine million homes have two TV sets and 7 million have three or more, including many which have five or six. Trying to balance this picture of TV ownership with the demographic make-up of the population – by age, sex, income and region – is a constant battle. Every time a panel household buys new equipment, it has to leave the panel until the engineer has come in to reconnect the meter. Two weeks are then spent testing the system, which means that this household can be off the panel for a month.

“Other people move house and have to be replaced” says McDevitt. “It means that about 30 per cent of the panel can change every year.”

It’s also getting harder to recruit some types of panellist. Young people have always been hard to track down, and now many older people are unhappy about inviting strangers into their homes. Residents in gated estates and other no-go areas aren’t easy to sign up either.

Then there are all the new channels. Despite the recession, more than 40 digital services have been launched since August (New Media Markets), and another 30 are seeking distribution in the next year. Accurately measuring all the channels that want to be measured is not easy.

Other issues that need addressing are how to measure and report sponsorship messages and interactivity, whether to combine radio and TV electronic measurement (as some would like) and, believe it or not, the next BARB contract process.

Not before time, therefore, BARB is beefing up its management team. Simon Bolus, head of research at Zenith Optimedia and one of the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising’s top TV research advisers, is joining the team in the new role of research manager, under director of research Tony Wearn. His appointment has been widely welcomed, not least because of his experience at Carlton and Granada, as well as at agencies.

“I’d like to beef up our relationship with the industry as a whole,” says Wearn “and Simon has a wealth of experience, encompassing TV, advertising and media.”

“It’s an excellent appointment” says IPA director of research Lynne Robinson. “There’s a lot still to do at BARB. He’s not going to be bored!”

Torin Douglas is media correspondent for BBC News

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