The most astounding aspect of the whole Barb shambles is just how
phlegmatic and stoical everyone appears to be about the whole
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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."