Ever since the launch and runaway success of the BBC iPlayer - it went fully functional on Christmas Day 2007 - there's been a more or less universal expectation that internet technologies would utterly change television. In fact, the medium would be so irrevocably transformed that we probably wouldn't be able to refer to it as telly at all.
The linear schedule was as good as dead and the audiovisual world would soon be about video-on- demand delivered via broadband to computer-televisions.
It hasn't quite happened that way. Predicting the future is never a breeze, of course, but the size and indeed the nature of the reality gap has become fascinating. Last week was particularly instructive, featuring, as it did, a rather provocative conjunction of events. For instance, the news that Barb is to trial an online TV measurement system. Internet television evangelists have long argued that absolute accountability is one of the sector's killer attributes and the rather quaint old TV research world represented by Barb and its small panel of 5,100 homes would soon be mouldering in the dustbin of history.
Unfortunately, the Barb story tended to remind the marketplace that, actually, Barb's trial online panel of 75 homes will comfortably outgun anything the digital world has yet devised. Digital media operators are still stuck with the mindset that it's good enough to count computers, and other gizmos, rather than the alarmingly human creatures who sit in front of them.
So Barb's figures, when they become available, will give us an interesting snapshot of the real world - and whether it bears much relation to the fantasy world of, say, the current BT ad, which features a group of mates gathered round a laptop to watch handjob.com.
Interestingly, last week featured other crumbling fantasies. Take, for instance, the hype surrounding Clay Shirky's latest book, Cognitive Surplus, the central premise of which is the notion that TV viewing is declining among younger age-groups for the first time.
The simple, inconvenient, and far more interesting, truth is that TV viewing has been increasing against such demographic groups - and in fact has been increasing across the board, not just in the UK but across just about every internet-savvy market you care to mention.
This trend was touched upon by Sir Martin Sorrell in his speech to the recent "Future of TV" shindig hosted by the computer chip maker Intel. He pooped the party somewhat by pointing out that a tiny percentage of TV viewing takes place on a timeshifted basis, whether online or via personal video recorders. And that online viewing among the 15-to-35-year-old "internet generation" accounts for an alarmingly low (2 per cent) chunk of their viewing repertoire.
The revolution is surely upon us - it would be foolish to suggest otherwise. But it still seems to be crawling rather worryingly on all-fours.
1. Since 2005, Barb has used its twice-yearly omnibus surveys to measure the number of adults claiming to have watched TV at some point via the internet. By November 2009, the figure had risen to 27 per cent of all adults.
The new 75-strong temporary panel, whose members will be separate from the main Barb panel, will be used to field-test techniques for measuring minute-by-minute online TV viewing via a virtual desktop meter. The ultimate aim will be to see if this system can be integrated into the main Barb panel - but in the immediate future, its top-line findings will be of interest too.
2. The only other significant pieces of research valued by agencies are the two "In VoD We Trust" studies conducted by QMedia for Channel 4, which have measured the effectiveness of several campaigns on the 4oD platform. It suggests that on-demand viewing improves awareness - but it doesn't build a comprehensive picture of the on-demand audience or its behaviour.
3. BSkyB's Sky Viewer Panel doesn't yet monitor online behaviour - though Sky Media has indicated that this remains "an ambition".
4. UKOM, the online audience research panel run by Internt Advertising Bureau and AOP, with the backing of the IPA and ISBA, will begin investigating online video behaviour by the end of the year. It won't offer Barb-style "ratings" for individual shows or ads but it will seek to work with the media and ad industries to ensure that its findings are complementary to Barb's.
WHAT IT MEANS FOR ...
- For established broadcasters, this is a terribly grey area, not least because a considerable amount of video-on-demand viewing takes place on offline platforms such as Virgin Media and Sky+. So some of this viewing is already included in existing Barb figures.
- There's therefore a tendency to see online viewing as just more VoD viewing and therefore just more telly. That's a mistake, some agencies say. It really is a different medium - and one that has more potential than broadcasters currently realise. They have to explore that potential through credible audience research.
- But either way, they're missing a trick in believing it's good enough merely to record crude online traffic and impression metrics. The new Barb panel, however small, is a small step towards working out if there's something significant (or unique) happening online.
- The main thing advertisers want to know about online viewing is whether it includes viewers that they can't reach using conventional TV - or indeed other media. If online TV doesn't add anything to a campaign, then it might become less interesting. At present, advertisers are being asked to take a leap of faith in this regard - and their stock of goodwill is not limitless.
- Forget all other considerations, some agency cynics say - the only agenda here is Barb trying to ensure that it appears relevant and forward-looking. If it achieves this on a modest level of investment, they argue, it will be money well spent.