Prepare for one of the biggest upheavals in recorded history

Although VCRs were expected to revolutionise TV watching, their impact was surprisingly small.

Do you have Sky Plus or any other form of personal video recorder (PVR)? And do you use it more than you used your old video cassette recorder?

If so, you’ll see why this week’s move by BARB to incorporate same-day video viewing into the overnight ratings figures is so significant – not least as it starts its largest industry consultation into the future of the audience measurement service. The figures won’t change much initially, but in the longer term – as more viewers begin routinely to pause live viewing and “time-shift” their programmes – these shifts will have a significant impact on audience figures.

The phenomenon exemplifies the huge technological and social changes that are making life increasingly difficult for BARB and other organisations that try to keep track of viewing and listening behaviour. The only thing known for sure is that things are going to get ever more complex.

Earlier this month, launching BARB’s Future into View consultation in front of 200 key advertisers, broadcasters and agency executives, chief executive Bjarne Thelin said: “There are more than 29,000 devices connected to BARB meters across the UK – and that number is increasing as more homes are getting more equipment and becoming more sophisticated.”

Some of us remember when the only items connected to the BARB meter were a single television set and possibly a VCR. In those days, we expected the VCR to have a big impact on viewing, not least by reducing audiences for commercials. Surveys showed that advertisers would lose millions of pounds in value as viewers fast-forwarded through the ad breaks.

In practice, the VCR has had less effect than anticipated. The commercial break has survived and just two per cent of TV viewing is accounted for by VCR playback within seven days of the original broadcast. Even so, for some types of programme – such as soaps and other dramas – the difference in viewing can be as much as 15 per cent.

BARB figures also show that if people are going to watch what they have recorded (they often don’t – only a third of recorded programmes are ever played back), most do so on the same day as the original broadcast. Two-fifths of playback viewing occurs on the day of transmission.

BARB calls this Vosdal (Viewing On Same Day As Live), and from Friday such viewing will be incorporated into the overnight viewing figures. Initially, it will have little impact, partly because it still represents less than one per cent of viewing and partly because Sky Plus playback will not be included straightaway. (It’s hoped that the necessary technology will be ready within weeks.)

But Thelin says the importance of the new measure is for the future: “The VCR life-cycle is on a downward trend, as shown by Dixons’ announcement that it would stop selling VCRs,” he says. “The emergence of recordable DVDs and hard-drive recording devices (PVR/DVRs) means consumers’ relationship with recorded content will change.

“Because recording on PVRs is so much easier than on VCRs, it is expected that people will record more. It is also likely that the two-thirds of recording that currently piles up unwatched will be more likely to be played back if it can be more easily retrieved via menus and cataloguing. And the ‘pause’ function on new devices can prevent interruptions to viewing sessions from terminating them – you simply pause, then continue.

“These three factors alone could lead to a greater level of time-shift material in the future.”

Meanwhile, a heated debate is beginning over just how widely BARB should cast its net, as it tries to keep pace with changing social and technological trends. Should it stick to its knitting and continue to see its main task as providing a “gold standard” currency for viewing? This in itself is a daunting enough challenge, given the 29,000 devices already connected to BARB meters, each of which has to be balanced in terms of household demographics, region by region.

Or should it try to embrace media convergence, as TV and radio audiences migrate from conventional TV sets and radios to online and mobile devices? Broadcasters and music companies are still coming to terms with the astonishing response to the BBC’s Beethoven Experience on Radio 3, during which listeners were invited to download the first five of the composer’s symphonies. It prompted no fewer than 650,000 download requests, shattering the preconception that classical music listeners don’t “do” downloading.

BARB is already working with Rajar, the radio research body, in tests of portable meters, as part of a wider investigation into new meter possibilities. And while both bodies insist there are no plans to develop a joint TV and radio “currency”, many on all sides of the industry – including voices within the BBC and ISBA – would like them to.

BARB has invited responses to its consultation by mid-September and will then start meetings with key stakeholders and wider groups. It could be a long hot summer.v

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