MEDIA FORUM: Can the BARB system deliver its digital promise? - When BARB’s digital data didn’t appear as expected recently, TV planners and buyers responded in typically cynical style. Speculation soon gained ground that the delay meant t

The television audience measurement system is at a crossroads. Of course it is. It almost goes without saying. The BARB system has been at the crossroads - or perhaps that should be a succession of crossroads - for almost a decade now, so long in fact that everyone has come to regard this as its natural habitat. In a decade that has seen the growth of Channel 4, the launch of Channel 5, the emergence of a genuine multi-channel market and now the advent of the almost unlimited choice offered by digital, audience research has struggled seriously to keep up.

The television audience measurement system is at a crossroads. Of

course it is. It almost goes without saying. The BARB system has been at

the crossroads - or perhaps that should be a succession of crossroads -

for almost a decade now, so long in fact that everyone has come to

regard this as its natural habitat. In a decade that has seen the growth

of Channel 4, the launch of Channel 5, the emergence of a genuine

multi-channel market and now the advent of the almost unlimited choice

offered by digital, audience research has struggled seriously to keep

up.



Several weeks ago, BARB sources told the industry that the first

audience measurements from digital households would be available in the

middle of October. They failed to appear. Speculation soon gained ground

that they did not appear because the figures for established

broadcasters, notably the BBC, looked very bad indeed.



Whether it has any real basis or not, this sort of speculation strikes

right to the heart of the integrity of the system - and this is a matter

of serious concern in the week that first-round tenders for the next

BARB contract, due to start in 2002, were submitted. Many observers say

that BARB’s handling of the controversy has been less than

impressive.



Last week, for instance, it merely released a ’briefing note’ that

failed to mention the rumour, gossip and innuendo, the implication being

that it was above such tittle tattle.



Surely, at the very least, there has been a breakdown in

communication?



Caroline McDevitt, the chief executive of BARB, strongly refutes this

notion. She also refuses to be drawn on speculative matters at this

stage.



She states: ’We will continue to do things at our own pace and we will

address all of the issues fully over the coming weeks. As our briefing

note indicates, we will be making digital audience data for the week

beginning 7 November available in the market in the week ending 20

November. Any other expectations did not emanate from BARB itself.’



But Doug Read, the strategy director of MediaVest, thinks we’ve just

seen an example of something that’s going to start happening a lot. He

states: ’The future will be about lots of little television

opportunities that we’ll be gagging for information about and BARB will

be under pressure to supply. It is possible to try to busk these things,

but I’d like to see a better and clearer set of guidelines and

information on what BARB is going to measure, what the sample size is

going to be and when it is going to be released. BARB has to work with

the industry and the fact is that people haven’t imagined all of this -

everybody got the same message about when the digital data was to be

released. Of course we can wait a few weeks - that’s not the issue and

BARB knows that’s not the issue.’



Many sources say that BARB will try to obscure the whole issue by

blinding them with science - worries about sample sizes and the

robustness of the data. This, they warn, will be a dangerous option to

take. It might, for example, draw attention to the fact that the

measurement of some mainstream demographic groups in some ITV regions is

already done against sample sizes of 100 or less. On the other hand,

maybe this is exactly the right time to draw attention to this. Maybe

people need reminding that BARB is already dangerously overstretched -

and the core issue, funding, is no nearer to a solution than it was a

decade ago.



A decent-sized media agency pays pounds 200,000 for access to BARB and a

decent-sized profit for such a decent-sized agency is around pounds 2.5

million. In other words, BARB costs the equivalent of 8 per cent of

media agency profits.



The whole cost of BARB, roughly pounds 11 million a year, represents

less than 7 per cent of Carlton Television profits, going on 1998

figures. Or put it another way, that pounds 11 million represents only

0.027 per cent of total UK television advertising revenue.



Many industry observers believe the real scandal is that media owners

will not put their hands deeper into their pockets. BARB staggers on,

spreading its resources ever thinner, bolting on ever more unconvincing

solutions.



Mike Smallwood, the vice-president, marketing, of Flextech, agrees that

all of this is a timely reminder of how important the new BARB contract

is. He comments: ’We do need the robust currency on which so many

investment decisions are made but BARB has to be more fleet of foot to

reflect the modern world. We might well have to move away from the

situation we have now where only 30 per cent of the data is accessed

regularly and 20 per cent is never used. As we move forward, are we ever

going to see a situation in which we have data on 210 sub-demographics

on Bravo digital? The answer has to be no. I do think we might be moving

to a situation where BARB focuses on providing a robust but not so wide

range of data, which can be augmented by other types of research.’



Mark Jankowski, the head of TV research at MediaCom TMB, insists that,

from an advertiser’s point of view, we’re all tending to lose sight of

the bigger picture. He adds: ’What is being missed is the way that

digital TV will change viewing and how BARB should be reporting this

change. We have already noticed a growth in ’other viewing’ which

historically contained non-measured channels. However, within the

digital home this could also contain electronic programme guides,

pay-per-view and interactive elements.



I believe that this will become a significant element in the digital

home.



’BARB must provide us with answers on interactive viewing, ranging from

the basic scenario, where a viewer chooses to tune into a particular

enhanced broadcast stream such as Sky Sports Extra, to a truly

interactive one where the viewer leaves the broadcast environment and

goes on to the internet.



These elements throw up fundamental questions such as ’when is a viewer

a viewer’ and ’when is a channel a channel’. These are not tomorrow’s

issues but today’s. We need a system that can track all the new

scenarios that digital TV will challenge us with.’