Media Forum: Will Barb's changes pay off?

Should advertisers fear the moves being made by Barb, Alasdair Reid asks.

Here we go again. Back in December, Barb, the organisation that oversees the UK television audience measurement system, announced that it proposes to break with AGB Nielsen when its contract runs out. As of 1 January 2010, its main data-gathering partner, which is responsible for managing a panel of viewers' homes installed with metering devices, will be TNS.

What goes around comes around. TNS was actually the incumbent on the contract before last, the one that ended on New Year's Eve, 2001. At midnight it handed over to AGB. And what a handover it was.

AGB had endeavoured to recruit a new panel - and, with more than 5,000 homes, it was far larger than the old panel, which totalled 3,000, but it failed dismally, despite reassuring all and sundry that everything was fine right up until the last minute. There were all sorts of excuses. At Christmas 2001, for instance, it seemed that just about every household in the country was attempting to install either a new DVD player or a Sky+ box.

But still, some veteran media buyers weren't exactly surprised. After all, there had been a similar shambles a decade earlier, when TNS took over from the previous incumbent. And some observers had been warning all was not well throughout the back half of 2001.

In 2010, similar to last time, an upgrade is involved. In 2002, the enlarged AGB panel was constituted to do a better job in estimating viewing levels down the long tail of barely watched digital channels. Likewise, the new TNS panel will be configured to measure more time-shifted viewing, and to evolve its ability to measure internet- delivered viewing on laptops and other transportable devices.

So, new panel, new goals. Should advertisers fear yet another chaotic Barb transition process? Bjarne Thelin, Barb's chief executive, who joined after (and as a result of) the last changeover process, assures the marketplace there will be no repeat. He states: "Barb's new service for industry reporting starts in 2010, but the process of set-up has already begun. Systems will be tested from early 2009, with a full panel parallel-run starting in the spring of that year. The new service has upgraded specifications. The panel will be constructed in a different way in preparation for a fully digital age - with sample designs based on the UK as a whole, rather than constructed from overlapping regions."

He adds that digital switchover has been factored in, and metering equipment has been tested in laboratory and home environments to identify issues that may appear during the building of the panel.

He also points out that Barb now enjoys a closer relationship with ad industry bodies such as ISBA.

Bob Wootton, ISBA's director of media and advertising affairs, agrees that this is a highly encouraging new factor.

Wootton's inclination is to be upbeat, but he also warns that there will always be worries when there's a change in methodology. "We have to live with that because we can't ignore how the world is changing. Audience behaviour is changing, and the way that audiences are measured will have to change, too," he points out.

David Fletcher, the head of Media- edge:cia's Media Lab, tends to agree: "When results from the new panel come through, there will be debates about reported changes in audiences, but those changes will not be as important as some people are making out. You have to take the long view. But having said that, where the technology is concerned, we're not seeing the sort of fundamental step-changes we saw last time - and that is sensible."

And John Overend, the joint managing director of OPera, evokes a perverse form of logic to justify his optimism. It is just impossible for the changeover to be as badly handled as it was last time, he reasons.

He concludes: "It has to be done. We need a new panel. All Barb needs to do now is go back over what happened last time, and make sure it learns lessons. I'm optimistic. You have to be, don't you?"

YES - Bjarne Thelin, chief executive, Barb

"We've worked through a number of assumptions, ensured contingency plans are in place and are confident the new panel will be delivered. The industry can have confidence the new system will be in place and will work."

MAYBE - Bob Wootton, director of media and advertising affairs, ISBA

"On the basis of Barb's history, you'd have to be wary about how the transition is managed. There are plans for the new panel to run in parallel with the old. That will tell us if the wheels are likely to fall off."

MAYBE - David Fletcher, head of Mediaedge:cia's Media Lab

"You'd hope everyone had learned a lesson from last time, wouldn't you? Changes of supplier always bring potential problems, and most research is sensitive to things you wouldn't expect to make a difference."

YES - John Overend, joint managing director, OPera

"You could argue that, last time around, just about everything that could go wrong did go wrong. So, fingers crossed, Barb has already experienced all the sorts of problems that it is ever likely to meet. I can't see there being any nasty surprises."

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