Media Forum: Is Barb keeping up with digital?

Can Barb meet the changing needs of the new media landscape, Alasdair Reid asks.

Barb is 25 years old this week. Happy Birthday. It has been a lively old quarter-of-a-century. When Barb took over from the previous television audience measurement system, Jictar, back in 1981, there were only three UK television channels.

ITV and BBC1 tended to have rather polite scheduling policies designed to keep heavy-hitting programmes from clashing. And ITV's biggest hitter of all, Coronation Street, had a supremely easy time of it - as EastEnders hadn't yet launched, it was the only peaktime soap on British television.

The Barb years have seen mind-numbing change, starting with the launch of Channel 4 in 1982 and accelerating with the advent of Sky and multichannel satellite TV in 1989.

We've not only seen the rise, fall and obsolescence of the video recorder, but are now witnessing the demise of its partial successor, the DVD player. By the end of the decade, television will be delivered via the internet to be stored on the hard drives of devices descended from computers rather than TV sets. Viewing on mobile devices could also be widespread.

Over the years, the Barb organisation has had its critics, not least when attempts to upgrade the panel size, or measure more sophisticated phenomena such as time-shifted viewing, have gone awry - 1991 and 2002 were not vintage years.

But since the latter of those two debacles, when it upgraded in rather shambolic fashion to the current panel size of 5,100 households, Barb has steadied the ship and has attempted to become more forward-thinking, instigating, for instance, a consultation process with the advertising industry called "Future into View".

It is also spending more on technological research and development. And this has been yet another milestone week, with the formal start of the process that will lead to the award of the next field research contract.

So, can it face the next 25 years with confidence? Unsurprisingly, Bjarne Thelin, Barb's chief executive, says that it can. He argues that Barb has faced up pretty creditably to the challenges set by the evolution of multichannel and the switch to digital. "Then there's been the reporting of time-shifted viewing and guest viewing," he continues. "It's a constant challenge to meets the needs of an evolving landscape and it's true that there have been times when we have had to run to keep up - but I think we've done that pretty well."

Bernard Balderston, the associate media director of Procter & Gamble, isn't so sure about that. He believes that joint industry research is absolutely vital to provide the numbers that underpin the industry's fundamental trading currency. So he'd hate to see Barb undermined.

But he'd like to see Barb moving faster. He explains: "Mobile and broadband distribution is with us already and I'm not sure that Barb has been taking the steps to ensure it will be able to measure these developments. If exposure to advertising in these sectors is not being measured, then that has implications not just for the buying side but for the media owner side too - because they will not be able to monetise these new areas."

Nick Theakstone, the chief operating officer of Group M, disagrees: "It's never easy to keep everyone happy. It's really difficult for anyone to get their head around the speed at which all the various new distribution channels are evolving - and how they all fit together - but Barb has shown in the recent past that it can meet the challenges when it has to. It continues to give us a currency we can work with."

Jerry Hill, the chief executive of Initiative (and a director of Barb during a previous stage of his career), believes that it's now at something of a crossroads - and if it fails to forge the right alliances it will rather rapidly diminish in importance.

He concludes: "Shareholding or representation at Barb might need to widen. Barb is funded by agencies, advertisers and traditional TV broadcasters, so one could argue that mobile and broadband are not part of Barb's remit. However, if we decide that Barb's remit is to measure viewing of any video content - live, or on-demand, at home or elsewhere, on 52-inch or two-inch screens - then it needs to embrace new media owners to help develop its measurement. If these new providers are not embraced, the progress of new advertising streams will be limited."

YES - Bjarne Thelin, chief executive, Barb

"We have a forward-thinking agenda and keeping in touch with what our stakeholders think is important as we look ahead. Issues like the growth of transportable content and on demand viewing are obviously issues and we're committed to exploratory programmes like our Future Into View consultation."

NO - Bernard Balderston, associate media director, Procter & Gamble

"It is beginning to feel as if Barb has not been moving as fast as it should. Where digital media developments are concerned, the technology can overtake you quite quickly. I'm not sure that Barb has been putting itself in position to measure things like (viewing via) mobile and broadband."

YES - Nick Theakstone, chief operating officer, Group M

"Barb have their feet on the ground these days. What happened in the past was that they'd ask people what they wanted and everyone would all ask for the world and then in attempting to fulfil that Barb would find itself making promises it could never keep. So I think it's now better placed than it has been."

MAYBE - Jerry Hill, chief executive, Initiative

"Barb knows it needs to increase the rate at which it responds to change. By 2031, it may well have become the aggregator of many different sources of information to provide the holistic view that we now require. But it needs to lay down the foundation for this new world in the next two years."

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