MEDIA: FORUM - BARB unveils first snapshot of digital TV viewers/At last. After one or two false alarms in recent weeks and a last-minute glitch - when the industry’s Donovan data distribution system crashed - BARB has now delivered the UK&rsquo

By ALASDAIR REID, campaignlive.co.uk, Friday, 26 November 1999 12:00AM

For those waiting impatiently for the first digital viewing figures from BARB, the assumption has always been that the numbers would be pretty bad news for broadcasting’s old guard. You didn’t have to be all that bright to predict that the smaller, nippier digital channels would cut to shreds the cumbersome armadas of old-fashioned broadcasters. Public service broadcasters like the BBC and ITV with all their edification quotas and commitments to worthiness would look pretty silly in the digital age.

For those waiting impatiently for the first digital viewing figures

from BARB, the assumption has always been that the numbers would be

pretty bad news for broadcasting’s old guard. You didn’t have to be all

that bright to predict that the smaller, nippier digital channels would

cut to shreds the cumbersome armadas of old-fashioned broadcasters.

Public service broadcasters like the BBC and ITV with all their

edification quotas and commitments to worthiness would look pretty silly

in the digital age.



The early digital adopters would be especially immune to the old-world

charms of the existing big networks.



Wrong. According to the figures released last week, although the 24

digital channels on the survey took a combined 6.9 per cent share, ITV

and BBC1 held up remarkably well - ITV, which had a viewing share of

around 32 per cent across all homes (and 25.6 per cent in existing

multi-channel homes), scored 23.8 per cent in digital homes, while BBC1

took a digital homes share of 18.2 per cent as opposed to its 26.8 per

cent all-homes score. The BBC as a whole took great heart from the

digital report, with BBC2 actually increasing its share - a bizarre, not

to say potentially dubious result, but worth celebrating in any

event.



ITV was hugely heartened too. Its decent showing comes despite the fact

that this research was conducted in homes with the Sky Digital system

(ONdigital homes are not included at all at this stage) which doesn’t

carry ITV at all. To tune into Coronation Street you have to come off

the digital platform and switch to analogue. On the other hand, ITV had

an incredibly strong schedule for the week (beginning 7 November)

covered by these figures, including mainstays like Who Wants to be a

Millionaire and a big one-off in the form of the Rugby World Cup

final.



It also has to be said that there is a huge health warning plastered all

over these numbers. One week’s worth of results from only 148 homes is

just the beginning of the story. What, if anything, can we take from

these figures?



Doug Read, the research and strategy director of Media-Vest, says the

main thing we can read into them is that digital satellite homes are

inhabited by some very sad people indeed - with an average of 29 hours

on the clock for the week covered, they watch two hours a week more than

the average. Read comments: ’There’s a truly enormous amount of viewing

going on in these homes. What sort of lives do they have? My first

impression was that the channel which has the most to worry about is

Channel 4 - though there may well be extenuating circumstances. But my

guess is that the figures will go up and down like a yo-yo - more so

than in analogue viewing homes - according to what sort of programming

is available in any given week.’



Read agrees that the health warnings - about the small panel size and

the fact that the panel doesn’t include ONdigital homes - should be kept

in mind. He adds: ’There will always be cracks in this sort of data and

the worry is that it will completely disintegrate in your hands if you

examine it too closely. But I don’t find it entirely surprising that ITV

and BBC1 have done all right, because these are the channels with the

biggest programme fixtures like EastEnders and Who Wants to be a

Millionaire.



In a world where distinctive programming will become increasingly rare,

the people who’ve got that programming will feel the benefit. We may be

seeing the first evidence of that trend in these figures.’



As Read points out, the figures brought little cheer to Channel 4 - or

Channel 5. Channel 5 dropped to a 2.7 per cent share in digital homes -

less than half its normal level - and Channel 4 dropped from its

all-homes 10 per cent share to 5.7 per cent. Is Hugh Johnson, the head

of research at Channel 4, worried? Not particularly, he reveals: ’Our

take on this is that there should be 340 homes on the digital panel,

reflecting the fact that digital homes are now 8 per cent of the total.

This research was based on a panel of less than 150 homes. Also, they

are early adopters, they haven’t had digital for very long and they’re

still playing with the kit, so the figures perhaps represent the fact

that people are experimenting with the technology rather than saying

anything about programmes. It’s only one week’s worth of figures and it

will take a while to settle down - there aren’t any real conclusions you

can draw from this. It has to be said also that the viewers in this

research are downmarket 25- to 44-year-olds which isn’t our marketplace

in any case.’



Almost everyone agrees that the novelty factor is probably a big

distorting element in these figures. But Greg Turzynski, a managing

partner of Optimedia, says that it’s no surprise to find the smaller

terrestrial channels losing a proportionately greater viewing share -

the same trend was spotted by Optimedia’s own in-house research. He has

a theory to explain that trend: ’As consumers get more choice they

exercise it by seeking programmes they like and in doing so they reject

the segmented programmes (aimed at small, niche audiences and special

interest groups) on smaller terrestrial channels - digital offers them

an even greater chance of finding what they really want to watch. Our

analysis of BARB data shows that digital viewing seems to be

particularly strong on weekdays and during the daytime. The digital film

channels are also doing well.’



Sky, which declines to comment on the figures, should be pleased.

Although he shares the general reservations about reading too much into

the figures, Matthew Blackbourn, the executive media director of

Starcom, states: ’It would appear that digital-only channels could make

inroads into the share of the traditional channels. A concern for

Channel 5 will be that it suffered in a week with a relatively strong

movie line-up - though obviously their re-runs will always struggle

against the variety of movie premieres available on the Sky service. We

would also predict that the loss on Channel 4 would be against their

younger viewers who are more likely to find something suited to their

lifestyles in the greater cross-section of channels on digital.’



This article was first published on campaignlive.co.uk

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