Media Forum: Is there a workable alternative to Barb?

Is CNBC, in its decision to withdraw from Barb, setting a dangerous precedent others may follow, Alasdair Reid asks. We all know that Barb has faced criticism arguing it is outdated, under-resourced and inadequate. That is not exactly news and, in fact, the industry moaned about TV research even way back in those primitive, yet pleasingly simple, days when we only had three or four channels, all of which shut down at midnight.

With the arrival of digital, though, the situation has aspired to new levels of absurdity. The bottom line is that, despite the launch of hundreds of new channels, Barb still only delivers meaningful data for the same old channels that were around back in the pre-digital Stone Age, plus half-a-dozen or so new ones.

But it is no use complaining if you are the owner of a niche channel.

Sure, you might be delivering an audience that dwarfs the readership of all but the most successful consumer magazines, but for Barb to get a useful steer on that (not just for you but for all small channels in the market), it would need a research budget greater than the GDP of a small country.

And as a media owner, you cannot abandon Barb because Barb underpins the airtime trading system used by media agencies and is the currency by which auditors judge client media performance.

Yet CNBC just did opt out. Arguably, CNBC has special problems in that much of its audience watches at work and Barb only measures what happens in people's homes. Barb has awarded CNBC zero average equivalent TVRs for every single month so far this year.

So you can understand why CNBC has decided to rely exclusively in the future on a GfK system that uses a "wristwatch" monitor to measure what consumers are absorbing right across the day, in and out of home.

Will other media owners now be tempted to do the same? And what implications will that have for Barb? David Fletcher, the head of MediaLab at Mediaedge:cia, appreciates the unusual problems faced by a channel such as CNBC, but he does not believe that we will see a rush of other channels following suit. He states: "Media owners use research for two things: first, as a justification to be on a schedule; second, as a way of arriving at a price.

"The problem with producing your own research in order to get on schedules is that you still have to have the Barb figures when negotiating a price. If you need two lots of research, you are effectively being penalised because your costs are higher."

But Oliver Cleaver, the European media director of Kimberly-Clark, is not quite so sure. He says that this could be the start of something significant.

"The world will be full of small channels soon," he reasons. "Even ITV will be a small channel if it carries on the way it is going."

He does acknowledge, though, that research upheaval could bring problems: "You have to welcome anything that brings the prospect of new research methodologies, as long as you address the problem of comparability and as long as it does not undermine what already exists. If lots of channels have their own research and agencies start running their own systems too, then your head starts to hurt when you try to work out what the endgame might be."

Bjarne Thelin, Barb's chief executive, believes that CNBC, with its heavy reliance on out-of-home viewing, is a special case. In general, though, while he acknowledges that smaller channels must be content with summarised averages, he points out that the data is at least as good as you would get in other media. "Analysing all channels at the lowest level that is possible is not always helpful ... other media deal in weekly, monthly, even quarterly averages as standard," he says.

He adds that he is always willing to listen. "Barb operates a consultative process with representation from across the industry and is open to receive views from any organisation," he states.

But other media owners are surely considering their position. Might they take heart from the CNBC initiative? Paul Curtis, the managing director of Viacom Brand Solutions, does not think so. He says: "For the time being, Barb continues to be an adequate currency for airtime trading and swapping one system for another will not change the fundamentals of the market.

"It balances out - on a different system your viewing might go up, but so will everyone else's. I can respect CNBC's decision but there is a section of the buying community that is rewarded directly via the existing currency and CNBC will just lose that business - it is as simple as that."

- "If Barb were to find itself in a situation where it no longer measured channels representing 5 per cent of audiences, then that would start to be a major concern for the market as a whole. But it would need an awful lot of small channels to defect to arrive at that situation." - David Fletcher head of MediaLab, Mediaedge:cia

- "I don't mind a degree of vagueness when you are dealing with small channels. Agencies plan on bundles of channels anyway and if individual ones want to get noticed, they do so on the basis of programming. I do not need any more complexity than that at the moment." - Oliver Cleaver European media director, Kimberly-Clark

- "Barb provides a top-quality audience survey in what is widely recognised as the most complicated TV market to measure in the world. The Barb panel is designed as the optimum panel that satisfies the industry as a whole at a cost that the industry is prepared to fund." - Bjarne Thelin chief executive, Barb

- "Barb has not done enough to anticipate the needs of the 21st-century TV market, especially when you consider multichannel will account for the majority of viewing. It's still biased towards terrestrial. But Barb is far from a lost cause. It can make up lost ground." - Paul Curtis managing director, Viacom Brand Solutions.

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