The BARB board gets a battering

Market research has a lot going for it as a business. Its high-margin, nearly recession-proof and genuinely global. Its also very boring, lacking the colourful unpredictability of, say, sales promotion for creating headlines of the wrong sort.

Market research has a lot going for it as a business. It’s high-margin, nearly recession-proof and genuinely global. It’s also very boring, lacking the colourful unpredictability of, say, sales promotion for creating headlines of the wrong sort.

Unless, of course, we’re talking about joint-industry broadcast audience measurement contracts. It was Kelvin MacKenzie, then chief executive of Talk Radio, who first revealed their full comic potential when he single-handedly shook up a complacent Rajar board some years ago, with his crusade for electronic people meters. The ripples of bitter mirth are still around us, in the form of faulty ratings readings.

Another long-running farce is playing at Rajar’s TV equivalent, BARB. Each time the BARB contract is renewed, about once every eight years, it seems to unleash an industry furore with the potential for wall-to-wall coverage in the national media.

Back in 2002, it may be recalled, the new contractor AGBNielsen had great difficulty in filling an expanded panel. Result: serial bedlam with the overnight television viewing figures. The shortfall took over a year to rectify, causing considerable exasperation among advertisers and buyer/planners; and chronic angst among the media owners – ITV, the BBC, Channel Four, five and BSkyB – who are BARB’s main shareholders. So, it was off with their heads: out went BARB chairman Nick Phillips swiftly to be followed by chief executive Caroline McDevitt.

You’d think the current BARB regime, headed by ex-Carlton TV executives Nigel Walmsley and Bjarne Thelin, would have learned the lessons of this ritual blood-letting. But apparently not.

Having efficiently whittled a long-list of 12 contestants for the 2010 contract down to two, they then seem to have committed an elementary mistake.

The winner was to be TNS/Arbitron. The shareholders, who also include the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising, were duly primed and the announcement was scheduled for Thursday, November 15.

Deafening silence at BARB
Instead of an announcement, however, there was deafening silence: and for good reason. The BARB executive had reckoned without the tenacious defiance of the jilted incumbent, AGBNielsen – the only other party left in the tender. Nielsen (which owns 50% of AGBNielsen; the rest belongs to WPP) has been threatening all manner of legal retribution unless shareholders are given what it considers a fairer hearing of its case.

Why, you may ask, should this unduly worry the BARB board which has, after all, secured the prima facie agreement of shareholders to TNS taking over?

Before looking at the level playing-field issue, let’s get technical for a moment. Current data-collection technology – call it the small electronic black box – is beginning to look dated. It’s adequate for present multichannel and time-shift TV viewing needs, but seems unlikely to cope with the more flexible, multi-platform demands (such as VoD) of the future.

One way forward is the so-called Portable People Meter (PPM). This is a pager-sized device worn by consumers throughout the day that can track what they watch (or listen to) more or less regardless of the broadcast medium. It does so by monitoring audio codes – embedded in programmes –inaudible to the human ear.

The PPM forms an integral part of the kit deployed in TNS/Arbitron’s winning bid.

Nielsen’s case
What Nielsen seems to be alleging is that the BARB board has overlooked two points, the first a legal one, the second an ethical one. On the one hand it is arguing that TNS’ PPM technology (actually developed in the USA by Arbitron) falls foul of Nielsen patents held in Europe, including the UK. If necessary, it is prepared to sue – as it has done in other markets. Litigation in Canada a few years back shows how tiresome Nielsen can be in this respect.

On the other, the Nielsen camp is saying the board has not conveyed to shareholders the full measure of the risks and shortcomings involved in adopting the Arbitron-bred PPM solution. Certainly there have been issues with its reliability in the US, particularly among 18-35 year olds. One source goes so far as to allege that the TNS tender may become invalid because BARB failed to put forward an even-handed case for AGBNielsen’s own handset meter tests – a PPM equivalent.

That may be going too far – and certainly there is no current evidence for it. What does seem evident, however, is that BARB is backed into a corner. It has been forced to take legal advice on the patent issue and is also expected to extend the bidding period to January at least. Otherwise the bids would expire of their own accord in early December, which hardly gives time to manoeuvre.

Stay tuned for the next twist…

Stuart Smith, Editor

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