MEDIA FORUM: Will the new-look Barb offer better TV research? - Barb told the industry that the new TV ratings system is on target for its 1 January launch. Is the industry buying it? Alasdair Reid reports

Here's the charitable view. Upgrading your national TV audience

measurement system is a huge task, and it would be a miracle if there

weren't a few unforeseen glitches along the way. The uncharitable view

is that this is absolutely typical. "This" being the growing realisation

that the transition from the old to the new Barb systems will not be as

smooth as was hoped.



After all, Barb has known for five years that it was to switch to a new

television audience measurement system on 1 January 2002 and it was

committed to avoiding the sort of chaos that occurred the last time the

system was upgraded a decade ago.



In short, it was to prepare well in advance so that there would be no

last-minute panics in building the panel to the stated requirements.

Second, it was to begin providing numbers well in advance of the

switchover date, so that people could look at both sets of data - that

from the old panel and that from the new - and make comparisons.

Planners, buyers and advertisers could then get a feel of the

differences between the two systems - and even derive "conversion

factors" between the old and new figures. Thus continuity (of a sort)

could be maintained.



At a presentation last week, Barb admitted what many suspected - that

there would be one or two teething problems. The plan is to create an

entirely new panel of 5,100 homes, but not all of those homes will be up

to speed come the turn of the year. And the parallel run, which many in

the industry were expecting by the middle of October, won't actually be

available until mid-December.



The presentation was designed to remind advertisers and agencies of the

benefits that the new system will deliver- a more accurate reflection of

viewing on digital and multichannel platforms and greater detail when it

comes to demographic breakdown. It was also designed to reassure the

market that, despite the teething problems, the new system was basically

on track.



Did it work? Were people reassured? Jonathan Allan, the TV director of

OMD, can't say that he was. He comments: "I'm happy with what's included

in the new Barb contract - more robust and reliable methodology - but

I'm not at all happy with the fact that the whole thing is running

late.



We're obviously all concerned about how the changeover will affect

recorded viewing levels and the worry is that we can't anticipate what

will happen to viewing. We can guess, for instance, that satellite

viewing may increase overall. The panel changes may mean that the

figures for the 35- to 44-year-old group may go up while 16 to 34s go

down.



"We need the parallel run data as soon as possible but, basically, if it

comes on 20 December then that gives us one day to try to sort it out

before the holiday period. And then the system goes live at the start of

the year."



Allan can confirm that the situation has seriously impacted on his

ability to construct meaningful airtime deals for 2002. He adds: "All

agencies want is consistency. I'm prepared to believe that the situation

won't be as serious as in 1991 (the last time the television audience

system was fundamentally overhauled) but we are not getting what we were

promised and, frankly, I'm tired of hearing excuses. We needed the

parallel run in October. They've had ages to prepare for this, haven't

they? You wouldn't believe this was a £3 billion industry, would

you?"



That's a view that will surprise and disappoint Caroline McDevitt,

Barb's chief executive. She insists that there were no concrete promises

as regards the timing of the parallel run. "When the new system starts

at the beginning of the year, people will at the very least have what

they had before. The priority for us is to establish the quality of the

data and, when we have four weeks of robust data, which will be

mid-December, the parallel run will be available."



But what does the early data look like? Is it actually robust yet? The

person to ask is Henry Lawson, the managing director of Donovan Data

Systems, the TV market's data and trading platform. He admits that last

week he was a very worried man indeed. He comments: "The quality of the

data they initially sent us wasn't good and early last week we had

genuine cause for concern about how things were looking. But by the end

of the week we were a lot happier - though you can never say it's right

until it's absolutely right."



Lawson argues that Barb is basically managing the whole process pretty

creditably. He adds: "There will still be households being added to the

panel in January but I don't think the industry is going to suffer that

badly. The parallel run is an issue but this is a massive project and we

need to make this change. The thing is that it's not the agencies or the

advertisers who have the biggest potential headaches - it's the

broadcasters.



Some stations could just go through the floor - and that must be a very

scary prospect. At this stage I don't think things will be as chaotic as

in 1991 but there will be some chaos. That's always going to be a

function of changing the ratings system. They are behind schedule but I

think it's encouraging that Barb has been so honest and fair in

explaining exactly what the situation is."



But what of advertisers? The Incorporated Society of British Advertisers

issued a guidance note a few weeks ago advising advertisers and their

agencies to build in foolproof clauses to airtime deals reliant on

year-on-year incentives.



Bob Wootton, ISBA's director of media and advertising affairs, says he

was very reassured by what he heard last week. "As far as I'm concerned,

the whole process is pretty much on track. The panel may not be complete

from 1 January but, even so, it will be larger and more balanced than

the current system and its full promise will be delivered by

February."



Wootton argues that a delay of one month in an enterprise of this size

is forgivable. And he adds that we shouldn't lose sight of the fact that

we have the most complex broadcasting infrastructure in the world, with

two analogue platforms - despite the fact that analogue satellite

doesn't really exist any more - and three digital platforms to be

accounted for.



He concludes: "As for the parallel run, yes, we were led to believe that

it would have been here by now, but advertisers will have taken account

of the need to be careful in negotiating deals for next year, and we are

not in the business of beating up Barb. This is a major change in our

audience measurement system and it is a major achievement. To my mind it

would be a churlish to pick holes in it."