MEDIA: SPOTLIGHT - Still waters ahead as new chief exec boards Barb

As Barb settles down, where will Bjarne Thelin guide his new ship?

He's got an immaculate sense of timing, that Bjarne Thelin. Having come up from the engine room of the tramp steamer SS Carlton just in time to see it "merged" side-on by the Granada super-tanker, he manages not only to jump ship but finds himself on the bridge and in command of a passing friendly vessel. Given what we're already beginning to hear, similarly lucky survivor's tales will be few and far between. Some of the life-jackets are well dodgy.

And, at the risk of overworking the metaphor, Thelin's new command (actually, he doesn't officially take up the chief executive role at Barb until January, thus qualifying for a decent pay-off) is a Barb vessel that seems to be sitting comfortably in the water following two years' worth of storm force nine troubles.

So, he can thank his lucky stars. Or at least that's one way of looking at it. There are those, however, who argue that Thelin's timing has actually been rather unlucky. They say that, given another couple of years, he could well have aspired to take one of the very top jobs in British broadcasting - and that his loss to the media owner side is to be regretted.

The irony is that in recent months as the director of planning, he has been a senior figure on the ITV team assessing the implications of a Carlton-Granada merger deal from all possible angles. ITV wanted to keep him as a strategy director but apparently he had gained a taste for life at the decision-making top table. "He's an intellectual with a fine strategic mind who had an impact on the schedule and the whole way that Carlton's airtime sales operation worked," Martin Bowley, the chief executive of Carlton Media Sales, admits. "He understands the importance of Barb to the industry and I'm sure he will make a contribution to the future direction that TV audience research takes in this country."

As Barb's chief executive he'll certainly acquire a measure of the status he desires - but he's going to have a rather sleepy time there, isn't he? Such a statement would have been laughable even a couple of months ago. In fact, at any period during the past couple of years the Barb top job would have been regarded as more of a hospital pass than a challenge - but the horror show is over now, isn't it?

Barb chaos was almost inevitable once the industry had decided to revamp the system fundamentally, increasing the panel of respondents from 3,000 to more than 5,000 while also hooking them up to better metering technology so that the data could better reflect fragmenting viewing patterns in the multichannel age. But no-one expected the saga to drag on for almost two years. The new panel was meant to come online at the start of 2002.

A matter of weeks ago, Barb and its research company partners were still desperately trying to recruit the households it needed to bring it up to full strength.

And, unsurprisingly, there were casualties. Back in August 2002, the Barb chairman, Nick Phillips, was ousted, to be replaced by Nigel Walmsley; and almost a year later, Caroline McDevitt, who had been the Barb chief executive for five years, announced she was stepping down as soon as a successor could be found. Her departure, however, is seen in many quarters as unfortunate - and although the industry is by no means in universal agreement over this, the majority view is that she has been making a decent job of an impossible situation.

"Caroline McDevitt did a fantastic job in getting us to the point we're at now," Bowley says. "The system is in good shape, delivering robust data which everyone is happy to trade on."

Almost miraculously, it's true.

A couple of weeks ago, Barb got there. The panel is now fully recruited.

It's still delivering some strange and inconsistent bits of data now and again, but basically we're there. So Thelin is going to have a rather cushy time of it, isn't he?

Well, no, actually. The anger and heat may well have been lanced from this one but the industry is actually gearing up for another titanic (if albeit more intellectual) struggle over the future of broadcast research in this country.

Lynn Robinson, the research director of the IPA, points out that the TV environment is continuing to evolve at a faster rate than anyone could have predicted when they were designing the new Barb system. Measuring interactive activity, for instance, is a challenge that has to be faced as a matter of priority.

We can't wait until the end of the current contract. "The contract will evolve. Bits of the panel may be changed and bits may be added," she predicts.

Meanwhile, as David Fletcher, the head of Medialab at Mediaedge:cia, points out, the whole issue of "next generation" research technology is coming to the boil.

Is Barb - and Thelin, in particular - up to the challenge this will represent?

"The temptation will be to say, 'Let's not go through the nightmare and the upheaval we experienced the last time we changed Barb radically.' But the technology already exists to record behaviour across a whole range of media via a single system. More than ever, the odds are we'll see a research company gambling on there being a market for non-Joint Industry Committee research," Fletcher argues.

For instance, the "wristwatch" technology that can measure radio listening can also be extended to take in TV. And, without too much of a leap in imagination, it could also take in press and outdoor media consumption too.

You could even argue that the Barb concept has already become outdated.

And after all, in the biggest media market of them all, the US, research is the responsibility of private companies, not joint industry committees.

So, is Thelin destined to be the last ever boss of Barb? Robinson doesn't think so. "No. Barb will evolve. Joint industry research will always have a part to play. I can't really see us going down the American route," she concludes.

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