Media Forum: Is Barb ready for the PVR era?

Is Barb's new bid to measure PVR viewing to be applauded, Alasdair Reid asks.

September 2005 may well be remembered as a milestone moment in the evolution of commercial television in this country. Not for the fact that ITV's marathon 50th anniversary celebrations have at long last reached their climax - with not a dry eye in the house. No, the significance of September 2005 could be far more apocalyptic.

Last week, Barb began phasing in the reporting of time-shifted viewing figures on personal video recorders (or, more accurately, the PVRs called Sky+ boxes) with data being accessed directly from service information codes on the hard drives of the boxes themselves.

There is much here to interest the anorak community, not least a new acronym that sounds like one of Dr Who's sillier enemies - VOSDAL, or "viewing on same day as live".

But it's the bigger picture that is likely to exercise more minds and cause greater anxiety. Will PVRs - the ultimate ad avoidance technology - really kill television advertising? Well, now we might be about to find out. The future begins here. But what does the industry feel about Barb's first forays into this territory - will the data have much immediate impact on airtime trading?

Not really, Andy Jones, the joint managing director of Universal McCann, says, but change very clearly is on the way. He explains: "Anyone who has a Sky+ box knows how massive the effect is on your behaviour and how easy it makes it to skip ads. For advertisers, there are also implications about what time of day your break will be watched, if it is watched. Our research shows that in Sky+ homes, 90 per cent of breaks are skipped in playback mode. Once this begins to be reflected in the Barb figures, the implications are obvious."

Interestingly, though, there has been speculation that the figures will show recorded viewing in PVR homes running at amazingly low levels - lower than 15 per cent. According to Andy Barnes, the sales director of Channel 4, if that figure is true, then it will be a matter of celebration in many quarters of the advertising industry. He states: "The people with PVRs are at this stage still the early adopters - and they are the ones who usually push a technology to its limits. So if the recorded view figure is significantly lower than has been predicted, then the overall impact on the airtime will be negligible. But before anyone starts to get over-confident about this, it's worth remembering that technology is still advancing at such a rapid rate that, one way or another, there are going to be significant changes in the way that television is consumed in the future."

David Fletcher, the head of Medialab at Mediaedge:cia, argues that the most important point here is that Barb has taken the plunge - despite the fact that the PVR phenomenon is still relatively small. He states: "For once, we have actually managed to get ahead of the curve. There are fewer than one million PVRs out there - that's about 5 per cent of homes and given that these are multi-set homes, we are talking about less than 2 per cent of viewing.

"In theory, that may be statistically significant, but given the way the TV market works, in reality it may not be significant in business terms. But the point is that we now have these measures in place, so when it does become significant we won't have to face a step change, with all the upheaval that implies. So you have to applaud Barb. As for the methodology and whether or not we're happy with it, the simple answer is that we don't know yet."

Andy Bolden, the UK media director at GlaxoSmithKline, tends to agree.

He comments: "In the short term, its importance may be in giving us a broad indication about how behaviour may change and alert us to the challenges that we may face in audience measurement even further into the future when there will be many forms of viewing, including via broadband and on personal computers."

But Bolden has never been an advocate of the alarmist view that the television advertising market could enter a turbulent phase. He concludes: "Advertisers have been dealing with fragmentation in all sorts of forms for many years now and we have found ways to adjust. Yes, I have to be worried that the most potent communications tool I currently have could possibly be diluted but I have always been of the view that television will remain the most powerful medium we have at our disposal."

YES - Andy Jones, joint managing director, Universal McCann

"It's still a small phenomenon because relatively few people have this technology - but that will accelerate and in three to four years this will be in all Sky's homes. As has been discussed endlessly, it's a challenge but the ad industry has to find ways of working in this environment."

YES - Andy Barnes, sales director of Channel 4

"Change never happens in quite the way people predict and there will always be opportunities as well as threats. As for the way that Barb is approaching this, no matter what Barb does it's possible to find some way of criticising it - but I am sure that this research will be as good as it possibly can be."

YES - David Fletcher, head of Medialab at MEC

"Only when it is meaningful data with real implications will we be able to get to grips with whatever quirks there are - and there will be quirks - but at least we have time to do that. In taking this early initiative Barb has ensured we will not be facing a bloodbath in 18 months time."

YES - Andy Bolden, UK media director, Glaxo SmithKline

"My instinct is that the impact of PVRs on overall viewing patterns remains small - but having said that it would be foolish to for me disregard what the data can potentially tell me. I've always been of the school of thought that Barb does a very good job in supporting a £1 billion industry.

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