Why our complex TV world still needs Barb

The organisation is committed to industry-agreed metrics that can also be applied to online platforms.

The Grand Tour: Amazon asked if Barb could measure the audience for the programme
The Grand Tour: Amazon asked if Barb could measure the audience for the programme

Our industry needs more accountable data, according to A Matter of Fact, a new report by ISBA and the IPA, which highlights the trusted role that independent joint industry oversight has played.

Barb, TV’s joint industry currency, has been doing just that since 1981, when the BBC and ITV committed to a single measurement of the TV programmes and ads that people watch. 

Britain’s TV and advertising market has expanded hugely since then, investing £7.5bn a year on the production and distribution of TV shows and commercials. Barb is still charged with delivering a currency that rationalises investment decisions in this fragmented market. 

Now, we have broadcasters distributing programmes through TV player apps, tablets and smartphones, while viewers are also spending time with platforms such as Amazon, Netflix and YouTube. How does Barb keep pace?

Defining TV isn’t as easy as it was. My eldest son says if he’s not watching on a TV set, it’s not TV. But my younger son thinks of Netflix as TV, regardless of which device he’s using.

My younger son’s definition is closer to how the European Union defines TV as part of its Audiovisual Media Services Directive.

Two points stand out. First, the concept of a programme should take into account on- demand services that are "TV-like". Broadly, this means they’re competing for the same audience as TV broadcasts. Second, editorial responsibility is essential for defining the role of the media service provider and, therefore, the definition of audiovisual media services. 

The industry is calling for cross-platform and cross-device measurement – and we have the means to deliver this

Our strategy board recently concluded that Barb’s polestar remains the delivery of audience estimates for TV shows and associated commercial activity. This recognises the industry’s demand that Barb reports video- on-demand audiences in a way that is comparable to our established measurement of TV programmes and ads. This means we have no plans to track online video ads that appear in static editorial content or social media news feeds. Barb is also considering whether to report audiences only for services that operate within Ofcom’s regulatory framework for the provision of broadcast and on-demand programmes.

We also need to be clear about our principles. Barb develops techniques that work on a level playing field. We report all viewing data for channels and platforms, not just the good news. Without this approach, we can’t provide the objectivity that buyers of TV advertising need during the planning process.

The industry is calling for cross-platform and cross-device measurement – and we have the means to deliver this. That said, we rely on the co-operation of channels and platforms.

Last year, Amazon asked if we could measure the audience for The Grand Tour. Our answer was an absolute yes. We’ve been reporting programme audiences for BBC Three since it went online. The same technique can be used for Amazon or Netflix.

Similarly, we report viewing on computers, tablets and phones. Online TV platforms such as All 4 and BBC iPlayer add software to their apps, which generates data to the specification we’ve created, and it is independently audited. We use duration-based metrics for online TV that are analogous to average audience and TV rating points in broadcasting.

Put simply, Barb has the means to report what people are watching in the internet era. Whether it is a subscription video-on-demand service or an online TV platform, we can apply industry-agreed techniques to the measurement and reporting of audience levels.

So rather than asking why Barb can’t measure all online platforms, the more pertinent question is: why do some services choose not to sign up to industry standards?


Justin Sampson is the chief executive of Barb

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