Horses for courses: the future of TV measurement?

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How will TV audience measurement change in the light of the growing dominance of on demand viewing. Richard Marks, global CEO of Kantar Media Audiences, gives his view.

When it comes to television measurement, the pressure is on like never before and understanding the emerging digital landscape presents major challenges.

With an explosion of choice, it could be argued that international critical ’hits’ like The Wire and Mad Men owe their eventual success more to time-shifting and catch up TV than to traditional linear television models.

But television isn’t just fragmenting – it’s polarising. The appointment-to-view mass market television “big beasts” still dominate the landscape. More than 19 million of us watched the climax of the X-Factor, Strictly is back above an average 10m and Downton Abbey is ITV’s most successful period drama since Brideshead. It’s clear that viewers still value that “watercooler” television experience.

The difference from the mass viewing 1970s, however, is that viewers have far more content to choose from and are far more adept at combining PVR (personal video recorder), online catch up and broadcast schedules to fill the holes between the big shows with content they want.

In the UK, timeshift during traditional peak viewing hours (19:00-23:00) has grown from 3% of all viewing in 2005 to 9% in 2010 so far; and in Sky+ homes accounts for 18% of viewing of peak time shows. Add to that the 5% of total viewing currently devoted to nearly 50 “staggercast” (+1) channels as a ’hidden’ form of timeshift, throw in 70 million iPlayer TV programme requests in August alone and it becomes clear that in 2010, missing an episode of your favourite show is something you really have to try hard to do.

Just one example of the new TV landscape: on Saturday 9 October, Harry Hill’s TV Burp scored a slightly underwhelming 5.7 million viewers, leaving some to wonder why it had been “wasted” opposite Strictly.

Seven days later thanks to the wonders of repeat showings on ITV1, ITV2, ITVHD and ITV2+1 and PVR playback the gross audience to that single episode stood at an impressive 10.7 million. As Jana Bennett, head of vision at the BBC put it earlier this year: “Just as Hollywood doesn’t judge a film purely on the first weekend’s takings, gone are the days when a programme lives and dies by its overnights.”

So where does this leave us poor audience researchers? Are we like marksmen in an arcade zombie shoot ’em up, desperately trying to target new viewing opportunities as they lurch into view? Or stuck back in the living room, praying that measuring domestic TV sets is enough?

In reality, digital research solutions have tended to focus on a number of areas:

– PeopleMeters themselves have been enhanced to measure digital viewing on fixed sets as accurately and effectively as possible – whether via Digibox, PVR, Xbox, google TV or YouView.

– Return Path Data (RPD) systems like Skyview in the UK and DirecTView in the US are taking data directly from digital set top boxes – an approach particularly effective at measuring interactive services, long tail niche channels, addressable advertising and VOD services.

– Companies like Arbitron have pioneered the use of Portable People Meter (PPM) technology to address ’any time, any place, any device’ measurement.

– Software solutions have been developed to track online video consumption.
How does this all fit together? Well, at both the recent ESOMAR WM3 and ASI European Television summits, measurement techies like us met with industry gurus to ’geek out’ over all things TV measurement (a bit like sci-fi conventions without the fancy dress).

Conferences up to now have tended to set measurement alternatives against each other, resembling Harry Hill going into an ad break – “Who’s best? PeopleMeter or Return Path Data? There’s only one way to find out …..FIGHT!”

However a consensus now seems to be emerging that PeopleMeter panels remain uniquely able to measure the totality of the market free from the need for broadcaster or platform compliance. As such they could provide the optimum ’hub’ survey on to which other data sources can be ascribed, fused, overlaid or calibrated.

So the future isn’t ’either/or’ when it comes to measurement techniques, it’s about ’horses for courses’.

Effectively it could be argued that the future of television currency panels such as BARB lies in being the ’Touchpoints’ for television: a hub calibrating a range of relevant techniques such as RPD, online and mobile measurement.

The appeal of this approach is that it reduces pressure on the TV panels to stretch themselves to measure absolutely everything at a granular level – regardless of how appropriate – and focuses on what they do best: cost-effectively measuring mainstream broadcast television to an extremely high, currency standard.

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