BARB to take centre stage in the TV farce

Oh dear. The renewal of the BARB TV viewing measurement contract is making market research rather exciting – and for all the wrong reasons.

You’ve got to have a smidgin of sympathy for the BARB executive, headed by ex-Carlton chief Nigel Walmsley and chief executive Bjarne Thelin, as they attempt to grapple with the impossible. It’s damned if they do change the incumbent, which happens to be AGBNielsen, and damned if they don’t.

At the heart of the problem is the potential flakiness of new measurement technology and the distorting impact this may, or may not, have on TV viewing patterns when the new contract comes into force in 2010. On historical showing, this will be rich source material for farce, like the one that caused such irritation among advertisers and media buyer/planners when AGBNielsen began implementing the present contract back in 2002. So, why bother tinkering with the ratings gold-standard in the first place? Why not stick to conservative, tried and tested methods and simply centre the contract competition on price and reliability?

A naive question of course. It’s accelerating media fragmentation, stupid. If the world around you is changing, as it is around BARB’s major shareholders, ITV, the BBC, Channel 4, Five, BSkyB and the IPA, then you have a duty of care to keep abreast of it. The question is, how avant garde can you afford to be without tripping up in a measurement farce?

A couple of weeks ago, BARB thought it had the answer, and it was called TNS/Arbitron (TNS is the only other organisation to have held the contract since its inception in 1981). It may still be TNS, but things have got a lot more complicated since then.

Here’s a simplified version. TNS’ winning card is that it intends to deploy a more sophisticated piece of kit called the Portable People Meter, which in principle offers clear advantages over Nielsen’s existing set-top boxes.

Ah, counters Nielsen, we’ve piloted – indeed pioneered – this technology in the US and it doesn’t work properly, especially among the key target group of 18to 24-year-olds. Adopt this technology and you’ll be heading for disaster.
The BARB executive has chosen to discount these admonitions as loser’s bluster. Unfortunately, Nielsen is in no mood to take its defeat lying down. It appears to own a number of patents over some of the technology favoured by TNS/ Arbitron, in main European markets including the UK. And it means to enforce them.

What, should it ever get that far, m’learned friends would make of this (apart from a lot of money) remains to be seen. But, in that eventuality, they could no doubt cast their nets widely to include evidence by analogy from the technologically troubled goings-on at BARB’s radio counterpart, Rajar, where Arbitron happens to hold the contract.

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