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Beyond the sample of one

23 September 2014

As tablet computers take their place in the television ecosystem, Justin Sampson explores how BARB’s latest development will enhance industry learning.

When Rachel, my wife, feels like reminding me of my inner geek, she recalls the day that I left home early one morning in 2010. My objective was to become one of the the first people to own an iPad.

The exact date isn’t etched in my memory like my wedding anniversary or a particular visit to Istanbul on 25th May 2005. But I do remember the thrill of getting my hands for the first time on the device that Steve Jobs described as being his most important legacy. His view was that tablets would, in time, be to computers what cars are to trucks.

And since that launch the phenomenal growth of tablets bears testimony to his analogy. Naturally, people in the advertising and media industry have been among the quickest to latch on to the potential power of these communication devices, both for professional and personal reasons.

Yet our collective understanding about the extent of their use is still only just emerging. The absence of concrete evidence means that the debate is often driven by sample of one suppositions. But perhaps this is not that surprising when you consider that they have been with us for less than five years.

So how do we get away from unrepresentative sample of one analysis? How can we develop real understanding of where tablet devices fit into the media habits of the nation?

Bespoke pieces of research have shown that tablets are more likely to be used for watching television in home rather than out of home. This is typically by a factor of two to one. So one long-term implication could be a reduction in the use of secondary and tertiary television sets in households.

We can also get a reading on the importance of tablets and smartphones from the BBC’s monthly report into use of the iPlayer. This publicly available analysis has shown consistent double-digit percentage growth year-on-year in the number of requests for TV programmes through the iPlayer.

The trend within the trend is that tablets and smartphones are increasingly popular compared to desktop and laptop computers. Two years ago less than one in five TV requests from BBC iPlayer came from tablets or smartphones. The most recent report shows this is now just under 50%.

But there is another trend worth noting from the latest report into iPlayer usage. This is that the rate of growth slowed across June and July. During the same period, BARB data show that there was a decline in the extent to which viewing was time-shifted. It’s no surprise that live TV did particularly well in the first half of the summer. After all, there was a World Cup to watch.

These trends from BARB and from the iPlayer usage data are worth looking at side by side since viewers are most likely to be turning to BBC iPlayer when they want to catch up with content that they’ve missed.

Tablet Piece Sep 2014 small

This reinforces the view that the decision on what to watch still takes precedence over which device is used to watch. Turning to a tablet or other computer device is only likely to happen if other better screens are not available for one reason or another.

This is perhaps one of the safer suppositions I’ve made so far. But why do we need to suppose? Wouldn’t it be great if we had robust evidence of what people are actually doing?

Well the good news is that BARB now has a means of monitoring how people are actually consuming their favourite TV programmes on a tablet. This has been developed by Kantar and we started to roll this out in our panel last month.

We already have over 250 tablets installed with the solution in nearly 200 of our panel homes. The first viewing session we captured on a tablet was a panellist who used his iPad to watch Guy Martin’s Passion for Life on the 4oD app one evening in mid August.

There is more work to do so that we can produce a representative set of data. Our first target is to deploy it in the 1000 homes where we already have software meters installed on desktop and laptop computers. We expect around half of these to have at least one tablet device. Hitting this target should mean that we can publish headline findings some time around the turn of the year.

Inevitably some people will ask why this hasn’t been done sooner, but the reality is that BARB is delivering the first industry solution for the continuous monitoring of how people are consuming media on their tablet devices. Smartphones are next on the agenda.

And what about my inner geek? Well you will know that I’ve truly succumbed to it if you ever see me wearing an Apple Watch.

Justin Sampson, Chief Executive of BARB