MEDIA: PERSPECTIVE - Barb has revealed the limits of media research in the UK

It's no surprise that the shameful Barb fiasco has claimed its first victim in the form of poor old Nick Phillips - a man ill-equipped, as it turns out, to deflect effluence from fan.

Phillips is, of course, a convenient scapegoat; the rest of the bunch responsible for this momentous cock-up are, for the moment, required to try to sort out the mess and rebuild confidence in the TV measurement system. But to so thoroughly undermine the currency that drives the biggest advertising market in the UK is unforgivable.

There's no doubt that the Barb balls-up has had a devastating effect on the TV marketplace. But it also raises questions about the state of UK media research - long thought (by its practitioners here) to be the most sophisticated and highly developed in the world.

Well, Barb is on its knees; the National Readership Survey could be heading the same way if tussles between the PPA, the magazine body, and the NPA, the newspaper body, aren't resolved (many newspaper publishers remain very concerned about the new CAPI questionnaire); and radio now has a breakaway force - the Little Guys Radio Association - unhappy with the Rajar measurement system.

Maybe the question we should really be asking is whether the millions spent on these creaking research systems is really the best deployment of funds - how relevant is our industry research to modern, converged media consumption?

The problem with all of the main industry research is that it still measures media, not people. We might have a favourite TV programme or buy The Sun every morning, but we graze across lots of media, nibbling bits along the way, spitting loads out and generally mashing it all up in our heads; we don't consume in silos, yet the media research industry is fundamentally structured as though we do. Even where there is some convergence of data, as with TGI or proprietary research, it is superficial.

In the US, the technology company Arbitron is trialling a new monitoring system using a pager that clips to the belt and picks up signals broadcast by TV stations, radio stations, poster sites and possibly even newspapers and magazines. As a multimedia measurement system this sort of catch-all monitor could offer cheaper, more accurate and crucially more relevant media research, tracking all media exposure to people with a name, a demographic and a postcode (and also with trackable product purchasing habits). I have a few niggling doubts about how it would all be funded, the ability of different media to agree on anything, and the chances of finding anyone masochistic enough to run it. Nice idea though.

Back to reality. When an organisation of such experience and importance as Barb buggers it all up so spectacularly, making any progress toward industry-wide, comprehensive media research is about as likely as Nigel Walmsley having a gentle run up to retirement.


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