BARB Explained

BARB Explained: The central role of the BARB panel

30 July 2019

In a world of big data, we are often asked why BARB still uses a panel of 5,300 households to report the television viewing habits of the entire UK population.

The BARB panel is fundamental to our television audience measurement system because it is the only way for us to find out about the people watching television: who they are and how many of them are watching. Big data, such as the data we collect from devices, can tell us which programmes are being watched, for how long and on which device, but, crucially, they cannot tell us about the people in front of the screen. Knowing who is watching is vital for our advertising, agency and broadcaster clients, who use this information to account for their investment in the production and distribution of programmes and commercials.

Moreover, at a time of increasing privacy concerns around how companies are using people’s personal data, there is a growing importance to having a panel of opted-in people, who understand how their data are being used. The privacy of BARB panel members is sacrosanct. We do not have access to our panel members’ personal data; all data are securely handled and stored by our research contractors, who process and anonymise this information. In our published data, all personal information about panellists is removed and replaced by industry-standard demographic classifications.

Unlike some other European countries, in the UK we have a single-source panel. This means that we have one panel of households and measure our panellists’ viewing across multiple screens (TV sets, PCs and tablets), rather than operating several panels to measure viewing on different devices. A single-source panel helps to ensure unduplicated reporting of programme and commercial audiences across devices. It also mitigates the risk of producing less precise demographic profiles, which can result from combining data from multiple panels.

The BARB panel is representative of television viewing across the country in terms of demography, geography, ethnicity and TV platform. It is not possible to volunteer to join the panel; households are selected randomly. The design of our panel includes targets for the number of homes of different types. Of course, no panel can be perfectly representative, so we also weight our data. Our panel targets and weighting are derived from UK Government census categories and population figures, to ensure that the panel is representative of all sectors of the population.

The BARB panel has been a central part of our television audience measurement system since BARB was founded in 1981. This is still the case; at an industry event in New York earlier this year, several speakers dubbed 2019 “the year of the panel”. Despite the challenge from big data, it’s clear that the role of the BARB panel in the production of UK television viewing figures is assured for many years to come.