Barb’s quarter of a century of watching us watching tv

CNN may have persuaded business people, politicians, journalists and other hotel dwellers to turn to cable – and later satellite – TV. But it was MTV that opened the multi-channel highway for the next generation, the viewers of the future, cha

As Top of the Pops bows out and ITV’s ratings slump, MTV celebrates its 25th birthday, as does the body that chronicles our viewing habits

CNN may have persuaded business people, politicians, journalists and other hotel dwellers to turn to cable – and later satellite – TV. But it was MTV that opened the multi-channel highway for the next generation, the viewers of the future, changing the way the world consumed media.

Despite the claims of its first song, video didn’t actually kill the radio star – at least not in the UK – but MTV laid the seeds for the demise of Top of the Pops, which bowed out this week with immaculate timing.

MTV also prompted – along with dozens of other targeted channels – the decline of ITV, which after another week of “worst-ever” ratings seems finally to have begun the search for a new chief executive.

Throughout the past 25 years, BARB has been television’s scorer, registering the decline and fall of ITV, Top of the Pops and other once-mighty brands – and the rise of many smaller channels and hit shows. To mark this moment, it has opened its archives, reminding us just how much the TV world has changed in that time.

Those with long memories will recall that before BARB was set up, the BBC and commercial television ran separate ratings systems, the findings of which – surprise, surprise – rarely agreed. In August 1981, they were replaced by a jointly-owned service, measuring just three channels – BBC1, BBC2 and ITV.

In 1982, breakfast TV arrived, followed by Channel 4 and, in Wales, S4C. The pre-Murdoch Sky Channel was launched in 1984. The Cable Authority was set up to regulate the fledgling cable sector in 1985, followed by daytime TV in 1986, and the first Astra satellite in 1988.

By 1992, BARB was reporting on 17 channels, by 1996 it was 39, and in 1998 there were 57 – together with two completely new platforms, Sky Digital and the ill-fated ONdigital. In 2001 the number of channels had risen to 132, in 2003 it was 175 and by 2006 it was 227.

Also rising were the number of homes and the combinations of people and technology to be found in them – all needing to be balanced for research purposes by age, socio-economic data and TV platform, and by the number of TV sets, VCRs and PVRs per household.

In 1981 there were 20.8 million UK households. Now there are 25.8 million. In 2000, 2.2 million homes had digital TV. Now it’s 16.2 million.

But the counterpoint to this has been a decline in the number of viewers per channel and per top-ten programme – and inevitably it is ITV for which the analysis looks most gloomy.

In 1982, BARB’s first full year of audience measurement, ITV had a 50% share of viewing among all individuals. By 1992, it was 41%, by 2002 it was 24.1%, and last year it was 21.5%. In a couple of recent weeks, it’s been as low as 16.5%, burdened by the World Cup Final, Love Island and It’s Now Or Never – Philip Schofield’s Saturday night show which has been dropped after a single outing.

How Charles Allen, Simon Shaps and Paul Jackson must yearn for 1982, when ITV took every place in the BARB top ten. The film The Spy Who Loved Me was top with 22.9 million, followed by This Is Your Life, Coronation Street, Force 10 From Navarone, and The Gentle Touch, starring Jill Gascoigne, all of which had more than 18 million viewers. Then came The Benny Hill Show, Family Fortunes, ITN News, London Night Out and Play Your Cards Right, each with more than 16.8 million.

Only football can pull in those figures now. Six of the eight largest audiences this year have been for the World Cup, and only one of those averaged more than 17 million viewers throughout the programme.

But those 25 BARB top tens also highlight the programme “bankers”, which have underpinned the schedules, and the “meteors”, which burned brightly but briefly. The bankers include EastEnders (30 million in 1986), Coronation Street, Inspector Morse, Only Fools and Horses, One Foot In The Grave, A Touch of Frost, Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, Heartbeat, Casualty and, more recently, Emmerdale and I’m A Celebrity.

The meteors include Bread, The Darling Buds of May, Walking with Dinosaurs and one-off events including the Panorama Special with Diana Princess of Wales (23 million in 1995) and her funeral (19 million in 1997); Torvill and Dean’s Olympic Ice Dance (24 million in 1994); and several football matches, notably England and Argentina’s 1998 World Cup match (24 million).

In 25 years’ time, will football still be bringing the nation together round the TV screen? Will anything else? Indeed, given that the BBC has just renamed its TV and radio divisions, will we be calling it television at all?

Latest from Marketing Week


Access Marketing Week’s wealth of insight, analysis and opinion that will help you do your job better.

Register and receive the best content from the only UK title 100% dedicated to serving marketers' needs.

We’ll ask you just a few questions about what you do and where you work. The more we know about our visitors, the better and more relevant content we can provide for them. And, yes, knowing our audience better helps us find commercial partners too. Don't worry, we won't share your information with other parties, unless you give us permission to do so.

Register now


Our award winning editorial team (PPA Digital Brand of the Year) ask the big questions about the biggest issues on everything from strategy through to execution to help you navigate the fast moving modern marketing landscape.


From the opportunities and challenges of emerging technology to the need for greater effectiveness, from the challenge of measurement to building a marketing team fit for the future, we are your guide.


Information, inspiration and advice from the marketing world and beyond that will help you develop as a marketer and as a leader.

Having problems?

Contact us on +44 (0)20 7292 3703 or email

If you are looking for our Jobs site, please click here