CLOSE-UP: LIVE ISSUE/BARB - Barb's latest figures justify last year's furore over the new panel

Last year's muddled attempt by Barb to install a new TV audience reporting panel has returned to haunt us with the release of the first audience figures of the year.

Twelve months ago no-one could have predicted the apparent dramatic overnight shifts in TV viewing habits when the panel was introduced. A year later and eyebrows are being raised yet again.

With total TV viewing up around 17 per cent and commercial adult impacts up 9 per cent, TV viewing levels seem to have returned to roughly those experienced under the old panel. This could mean the panel is working, but there are sceptics. "It looks suspiciously right," Steve McDonnell, the director of MediaCom, comments.

Caroline McDevitt, Barb's chief executive, attributes the fluctuation to the programming, however.

ITV - which along with Channel 4 was one of the big losers of last year - is enjoying growth in excess of 20 per cent for its main trading audiences.

Channel 4 has seen its youth audiences, which seemed to desert the station at the beginning of 2002, return in a big way. Early indications show that 16- to 34-year-old adult impacts are up 40 per cent, which almost matches the decline of last year.

While TV buyers acknowledge that inclement weather at the beginning of January might be responsible for some of the growth, there is concern that the new data exposes just how flimsy Barb was at the beginning of last year.

But the media consultancy Billetts is of the opinion that what we are seeing is the audience data correcting itself to the normal levels and that this process will continue for the first quarter of the year.

This is, of course, cold comfort for those TV companies that have already dealt their airtime based on a declining performance last year. Publicly, they support McDevitt but privately there is anger and frustration at the effect Barb has had on their businesses. She says broadcasters haven't complained to her, however.

While the year-on-year data has merely reopened old wounds, there is greater concern that the Barb panel is still 600 panel homes short of its promised target of 5,100 homes some 13 months after its introduction.

Edward Lloyd Barnes, the managing director of the media independent The ComFederation, agrees. "If the panel is still not up to size then the problem of year-on-year comparisons will persist as panellists are added," he says.

The shortfall of panellists highlights the fact that hangovers from last year remain. In general, however, the new Barb chairman, Nigel Walmsley, who replaced Nick Phillips, the man widely thought to be the scapegoat, has been applauded for getting the project back on track.

And lessons have been learned. One Barb shareholder acknowledges there wasn't enough time allowed to get the new panel recruited and that the parallel run was cut short too soon.

But, he says, perhaps the broadcasters who fund Barb should acknowledge some responsibility. "Barb is run on a shoestring with running costs of around £15 million but is expected to be an accurate currency upon which £3 billion of advertising is traded," he says.