Launching a new Barb TV measurement panel has, in the past, seemed to be as fraught with glitches as cranking up the Hadron Collider. The equivalent of a damaged cable or chunk of bread roll has been known to jam the system and delay lift-off.
The situation reached a nadir in 2002 when chaos ensued following Barb's switchover to a new panel of more than 5,000 viewers, a panel that was replacing the former one of just 3,000 and was infinitely more complex in the scope of its ambitions. It took close to 18 months to recruit the full panel and, as a result, heads rolled, with the Barb chairman, Nick Phillips, stepping down from the role.
Determined to avoid a repeat of such incidents, Barb has taken no chances ahead of the introduction of a new audience panel and other significant upgrades to the system on 1 January 2010.
Last week, Barb's chief executive, Bjarne Thelin, announced details of the planned launch and also provided background on the rigorous testing that has been carried out on the new panel since six-year contracts were awarded to new research groups in December 2007.
This two-year implementation process has taken place against the background of massive change and increased fragmentation in the media industry, leaving observers to wonder if Barb can remain fit for purpose in such an era of whirlwind progress.
1. Barb started reporting on TV audiences in 1981 and is a non-profit organisation owned by the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Five, BSkyB and the IPA. The system provides measurement of TV viewing obtained from in-home meters across a panel of 5,100 homes and 11,500 individuals. Viewing figures are provided to subscribers, including the major media agencies, the morning after transmission.
2. The new Barb panel, also of 5,100 homes (though these are entirely new when compared with the existing panel), will be introduced in the new year and will be in place for six years. Two years ago, Barb appointed the research companies RSMB, which designed the survey and its quality control, Ipsos MORI, which is responsible for measurement of audience characteristics, and TNS, which is responsible for recruiting and maintaining the panel and for data retrieval and processing. TNS won the contract from its rival AGB Nielsen, immediately sparking a potential dispute between TNS and Nielsen, the part-owner of AGB Nielsen, which reportedly threatened legal action linked to patents on the measurement products TNS was planning to use.
3. Though the new panel is the same size as its predecessor, there are some important differences. For instance, because its complex regional nature has been simplified, the new panel has built in a more accurate ethnic profile and also has what Barb claims to be a more accurate reflection of multi-channel homes and greater insight into metropolitan, urban and rural populations.
4. The new panel has been tested for months now. It was fully in place by July and data from some areas of the panel has been flowing through the system since May. More recently, Barb conducted a full parallel test of the new Barb panel alongside the current one that ran smoothly.
5. Tests of the new panel have shown a 4 per cent increase in overall viewing to the 300-plus itemised channels on Barb. Thelin puts this down, at least in part, to the new panel's strength in measuring viewing on "secondary" TV sets in homes. It's by no means certain that this increased figure will be sustained once the new panel is fully up and running but some difference is expected.
6. Since launch, Barb has evolved its ability to measure viewing through a variety of devices. The panel can now measure on-demand playback of programming via set-top boxes, games consoles and PCs. As Thelin puts it: "If it's connected to the television, then we'll be able to measure it." This range of viewing data is incorporated into "overnight" data within seven days. Barb is also working on introducing measurement of TV viewing directly via laptops and PCs. This could be introduced at some point within the coming months - an example, Thelin says, that proves that the Barb system is "under constant review and development" even once a new contract has been awarded.
WHAT IT MEANS FOR ...
- Potential upheaval for agencies seems to have been minimised as agencies say they have already been testing the new data streams and they appear to be working smoothly. This bodes well for avoiding the chaos that switchover caused in 2002, when the new panel wasn't fully in place.
- More fundamentally, perhaps, the new panel has delivered test results that indicate a 4 per cent increase in total viewing, something that could have implications for traders.
- However, agencies predict that this will be minimal. David Fletcher, the head of Mediaedge:cia's Medialab, says: "The market will absorb a 4 per cent increase and we have all decided that Barb offers the way to go forward."
- The new panel also offers potentially greater accuracy of data and stronger measurement of viewing through devices beyond the traditional TV set. As Fletcher puts it: "I don't see a markedly different model (to Barb) emerging soon, not during the terms of the next contract period anyway."
- New Year's Eve may just see a few nerves at Barb, given what has happened in the past. However, its chief executive, Bjarne Thelin, is convinced that rigorous testing of the new panel will lead to a smooth transition.
- There will be no repeat of past blunders, he argues: "I can very confidently say that the system is set up and ready to provide a gold standard currency because of all the testing we have done."
- There has been increased effort from Barb in keeping up with both demographic and technological changes. And the fact that Barb can now measure viewing via any device connected to a TV is testimony to how far the system has advanced.