MEDIA FORUM: Can the TV ad market have faith in Barb's figures? - Barb's new audience measurement is throwing up some very strange figures. Is this a threat to stability in the airtime market?

The most astounding aspect of the whole Barb shambles is just how

phlegmatic and stoical everyone appears to be about the whole

business.



How very British. How very heart-warming. The UK television advertising

market, lest anyone forget, is worth more than £2.9 billion and it

is the lead marketing arena for the country's biggest companies. So you

could just about get away with arguing that it's all rather important

for the economy.



You don't destabilise that on a whim. But there's surely no harm in

upgrading the market's basic trading currency - the Barb television

audience measurement panel - as long as you absolutely positively

guarantee that you can manage the transition without contriving to throw

the baby out with the bathwater.



Whoops, as they say occasionally in the bathwater disposal business. The

audience figures from the new panel bear absolutely no relationship to

the figures from the old panel. The parallel run (the transition period

when both panels were meant to be running simultaneously over the last

three months of last year) did not take place for any sustained

period.



So there's no way of assessing how much trust to put in these new and

rather alarming numbers.



Alarming because, in the early figures that began emerging last week,

total viewing levels are down year on year. If you believe that these

unofficial figures bear any relation to reality then we've suddenly

started watching less TV. Commercial television's share of viewing has

declined.



In other words, in the multichannel age, we're finding the BBC's

offering rather attractive.



And last, but by no means least, ITV's share of commercial impacts has

also declined steeply across the board. Which, one way or another, will

have huge ramifications for the airtime market, won't it? Do we believe

the new picture of viewing patterns that's emerging? And even if we

don't, what can we do about it, because it's the only trading currency

we have?



Bernard Balderston, the associate director of UK media at Procter &

Gamble, agrees that the early signs are a little worrying. But, he adds,

we should take a common-sense approach. He states: "At the moment we

have to take into account, first, that the panel is still not complete,

and second, that it is still bedding down. So we won't really take a

view until we have all the data for the first three months, by which

time the glitches will have been taken out and we'll have a better

picture. By then, the panel ought to deliver data that is broadly

identifiable with the previous data."



But what if it isn't? If audience figures are down across the board we

will either see rampant inflation or money leaving the TV market and

going into other media. And changes in the balance of power could bring

other problems. For instance, could we see a situation in which a big

player such as ITV will have to start defaulting on airtime deals based

on audience guarantees? What could that do to the whole trading

system?



It would be unwise to get hysterical at this stage, Mick Perry, the

chairman of Magna, cautions: "It's true that the new system appears to

produce a significant decline in commercial audiences. The result of

that will be inflation, which will mean clients will query the value of

TV. They will not like being asked to pay more for TV when other media

are becoming cheaper. Also you might have a higher committment to ITV

than your audience data warrants. If advertisers feel they have signed a

deal that is excessive and beyond what is now reasonable they might try

to renegotiate. I can't see contractors being keen on that but power is

transferred back to advertisers when it comes time to talk about the

next negotiation period."



Other agency sources tend to echo much of that. They say that we might

see advertisers attempting to open negotiations for 2003 before the

summer.



And there's a further way in which the new figures could play havoc with

the market - many smaller stations benchmark their prices against ITV

prices. So they too might have to rethink their whole outlook.



That could be a painful process. But they can't complain if it benefits

them in the long run. Perhaps the market shouldn't be afraid of

change.



For instance, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to work out that if you

reconfigure your measuring system to reflect multichannel viewing habits

more accurately you're going to unearth increased multichannel

viewing.



But perhaps the most bizarre figures to emerge from the new system are

those for Channel 4. The station that specialises in 16- to 34-year-old

audiences has, er, seen audience numbers against the 16 to 34

demographic decline by more than 25 per cent.



Which surely means that Channel 4's commercial director, Andy Barnes, is

screaming blue murder. Actually, his response is very measured: "If you

ask me if this is a reliable picture then the answer has to be no, I

don't think so. Is it all right to see the apparent audience losses

we've seen? Again, no, of course not. There are clearly problems here

that need addressing. But let's not underestimate the size of the

undertaking in changing Barb to this extent."



But surely the point is that, whatever we think of its validity or

accuracy, these figures are still the only currency we have. Surely some

channels are just not going to be able to deliver the commitments

enshrined in airtime deals? Barnes responds: "We will deliver deals

within the tolerances that are built into those deals. The system will

cope. But there is no single answer to this and it's not just ITV's

problem or the problem of any one station. I hope and believe that

agencies and advertisers will take a responsible long-term view."



Andy Roberts, Starcom Motive's executive UK buying director, would agree

with much of that: "On the old system, audiences were stable for tens of

years, despite all the changes such as multichannel and digital

television. Maybe that says a lot about the accuracy of the old system.

Should we be surprised that, broadly speaking, audiences are now lower?

Perhaps not. Should we be surprised that people are watching more

multichannel and less of the bigger stations? Again, perhaps not. And if

this is how it is to be, then perhaps people will have to reconsider how

they've been trading - and anything is possible in the world of

negotiations. But I think we should be wary of any measurement currency.

The most important question is whether TV is as effective a medium in

January as it was in December. And I think we all know the answer - yes,

of course it is."



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