Down the tube

stuartsmithIt was with some interest, and a little surprise, that I recently discovered total commercial broadcast television impacts had actually risen, and by a whole 6% too, in the first half of this year.

Let me explain my excitement at this discovery.

A commercial impact records one person watching one advertisement at normal speed (ie, not on a DVR, where it can be speeded up). Surely, I reasoned, this 6% increase means TV isn’t the clapped-out old medium some people have been claiming. Quite the contrary: it’s showing robust resilience to all that trendy new media competition from the internet, mobile phone technology and the like that we’ve been hearing so much about.

Reading on, in the bi-annual report usefully published by the commercial TV ginger group Thinkbox, I found further corroboration for this theory. The report acknowledged that TV viewing via web services such as iPlayer and itv.com (where you can’t measure such impacts) was increasingly popular. But no matter, because such viewing is incremental, not detrimental, to broadcast viewing, it claimed.

Now, I know what you’re going to say: “They would say that, wouldn’t they?” They’re paid to do so by the self-same TV companies they are reporting on. Look around a bit, you might suggest, and you’ll get a very different flavour to what’s happening in commercial television. Take ITV for example.

Michael Grade, only the other week, had to admit the 3-year turnaround was now a 5-year turnaround. Once again he was squawking about the unsustainable cost of the public service broadcasting licence and threatening to hand back the keys to ITV1, like a house in negative equity whose owner has decided to do a bunk. There are also rumours abounding about Ofcom being forced to “do something” this autumn about the deadweight of CRR (contract renewal rights, whose baneful influence on ITV revenue is linked to decreasing impacts) – or else.

But I’ll have none of this negative talk. The idea of Thinkbox, whoever its paymasters, playing fast and loose with BARB figures is unthinkable. As for ITV, it’s not Grade’s fault that his recovery programme is heading into a recession, is it?

Glued to the box…
No, television viewing is in robust good health. And to prove it, we have no less an authoritative source than Ofcom’s annual Communications Market report, out this week.

In it we find, among a plethora of other fascinating facts, that the average Briton spent 218 minutes – or about three and a half hours – watching TV a day last year. Two minutes more than in 2006 and only six minutes down on 2002. At that time, internet viewing (outside work) was only six minutes; last year, by contrast, it had risen to 24 minutes.

So, on the surface at least, there does seem to be some support for the Thinkbox theory that television and online viewing are complementary.

But it’s under the surface we need to look: here the Ofcom report reveals more disturbing findings.

It is a fact that young people, though they are foremost in advertisers’ sights, have never been the biggest TV consumers. But now the situation is significantly deteriorating. 16-24 year olds looked at their TV sets for about 150 minutes a day each last year, which is a full 10 minutes less than they did five years ago and an hour less than the average. In other words, all those impacts we’ve been hearing about, they’re reaching more and more older people, the ones advertisers are traditionally less interested in because they are so set in their ways.

… but checking their emails
Then too, we have to consider the quality of viewing. The picture we get from Ofcom is of increasingly promiscuous viewers, not particularly committed to anything other than their mobile phone. The typical viewer now seems to spend a considerable amount of time texting (60 billion text messages were sent last year, 36% up on 2006) while allegedly watching the telly (well, it was switched on at any rate). Not only that, a third of 25- to 44-year-olds often check their emails at the same time.

Worse, when people (mostly younger people) do want to watch a favourite telly programme, an increasing number have the temerity to do so in their own time, rather than during the slot appointed by the schedulers. In this they are greatly aided by the penetration of the DVR (now to be found in 6 million, or a quarter of, UK households, where the vast majority, according to Ofcom, choose to skip the ads).

And not only that: downloaded and streamed TV programmes on the likes of iPlayer and You Tube are proving extremely popular; not admittedly an impossible environment for advertisers, but certainly a more hostile and problematic one.

All in all then, we seem to be heading for an inflexion point in TV viewing measurement. The traditional “awareness” model encapsulated in BARB, is decidedly obsolescent and therefore of sharply decreasing credibility and value to advertisers.

The question is, what – beyond the kind of behavioural targeting used on the internet – is likely to replace it? And at what sort of cost?

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