Latest news insight

People watching in the internet age

2 June 2017

This article by Justin Sampson, our Chief Executive, was first published in Campaign on 2nd June 2017.

Our industry needs more accountable data, according to A Matter of Fact, a new report by ISBA and the IPA. Phil Smith and Paul Bainsfair highlight in their foreword the role that independent, joint industry oversight plays in delivering trusted data.

BARB, television’s joint industry currency, has been doing just that since 1981. The furnace which forged BARB was the coming together of BBC and ITV in 1981, when they committed to a single measurement of the television programmes that people choose to watch. Naturally, ITV also had an interest in reporting how many people watched the commercials.

The UK’s TV and advertising market has expanded hugely since then, and now invests £7.5 billion in the production and distribution of television programmes and commercials. BARB is still charged with the responsibility for delivering a currency that rationalises investment decisions in this fragmenting market.

Our first experience of fragmentation was the launch of Channel 4 in November 1982. The pace of development has become inexorable since then, with online platforms being the new poster child. Broadcasters are distributing programmes through TV player apps to tablets and smartphones, while viewers are also spending time with new platforms, such as Amazon, Netflix and YouTube.

BARB measures all players in the market on a level playing field: our measurement standards apply to all who choose to subscribe. Equally we report all viewing data for channels and platforms, not just the good news.

How does BARB keep pace?

First we need to be clear about our scope; defining television isn’t as easy as it was, and that’s just in the Sampson household. It’s straightforward if we take the side of my eldest son: if he’s not watching on a TV set, it’s not television. But my younger son thinks of Netflix as television, regardless of which device he’s using.

His definition is closer to the official one provided by the European Union, as part of its Audiovisual Media Services Directive. It’s not a quick read, but a couple of points stand out.

First, the concept of a programme should take into account on-demand services that are, quote, television-like; in broad terms, this means they’re competing for the same audience as television broadcasts. And second, the concept of editorial responsibility is deemed essential for defining the role of the media service provider and, therefore, the definition of audiovisual media services.

Our Strategy Board recently concluded that BARB’s polestar remains the delivery of audience estimates for television programmes and associated commercial activity. This recognises a clear industry demand that BARB report VOD audiences in a way that is clearly comparable to our established measurement of television programmes and commercials.

This focus means we have no plans to track online video ads that appear in static editorial content or social media news feeds. BARB is also considering whether to report audiences only for services that operate within Ofcom’s regulatory framework for the provision of broadcast and on-demand programmes.

We’ve been reporting programme audiences for BBC Three since it stopped broadcasting as a linear channel; the same technique can be used for programmes distributed through Amazon or Netflix.

As we clarify our scope, we also need to be clear about our principles.

Like any joint industry currency, we develop techniques that measure all players in the market on a level playing field: our measurement standards apply to all who choose to subscribe. Equally we report all viewing data for channels and platforms, not just the good news. Without this approach, we can’t provide the objectivity that buyers of television advertising need during the planning process.

And our governance structure has to be transparent. Without transparency there is diminished accountability, and without accountability there is diminished confidence.

Accountability also means we change in line with the needs of the industry that owns us. We hear the industry calling for comprehensive, cross-platform and cross-device measurement; the good news is we have the means to deliver this. That said, we do rely on the cooperation of media channels and platforms.

Last autumn, we were approached by a representative of Amazon asking if we could measure the audience for The Grand Tour. Our answer was an absolute yes. We’ve been reporting programme audiences for BBC Three since it stopped broadcasting as a linear channel; the same technique can be used for programmes distributed through Amazon or Netflix.

Similarly, we’ve been reporting viewing levels on personal computers, tablets and smartphones since the autumn of 2015. This is possible because online TV platforms such as All 4 and BBC iPlayer add software to their apps, which generates data to the specification we’ve created on behalf of the industry. As you would expect of BARB, the process is independently audited.

Also, and again as you would expect of BARB, the online TV metrics are comparable to our established television audience metrics. We apply the principles of television audience measurement to online viewing, so we use duration-based metrics analogous to average audience and TVRs. These metrics have been ratified by JICWEBS, the industry-owned body for online measurement standards.

Put simply, BARB has the means to report what people are watching in the internet era. Whether it is an SVOD service or an online TV platform, we can apply industry-agreed techniques to the measurement and reporting of audience levels. So rather than asking why BARB can’t measure all online platforms, the more pertinent question is why some services choose not to sign up to industry standards.

Justin Sampson, Chief Executive, BARB