The Viewing Report

The importance of a joint industry standard by Becky Marvell

21 May 2019

Fleabag © BBC

The big SVOD services’ viewing data have long been shrouded in secrecy. But in January, Netflix let us take a peek behind the curtain. Their Q4 earnings release featured the following claims:

“In its first four weeks on Netflix, we estimate that Bird Box from director Susanne Bier will be enjoyed by over 80 million member households, and we are seeing high repeat viewing.”

“A week ago, we launched Sex Education from the UK and it is also tracking to be a huge hit (estimated over 40 million households watching the title within the first four weeks).”

But what should we make of this information?

Firstly, the numbers stated were forecasts of future performance – typical perhaps for financial releases, but relatively unheard of in TV ratings measurement.

Secondly, it wasn’t entirely clear what the numbers meant. Netflix stated that “for series, due to their highly variable length, we count a viewer if they substantially complete at least one episode (70%)”. This is not how the TV industry in the UK has typically measured performance (i.e. the average audience who watched the show throughout its run time) and could inflate the series’ average figures (because it will not take into account the number of viewers who drop off during the series).

And thirdly, releasing data in this way highlights only the successes. Many of the big global digital companies are selective about the information they release. Until they sign up for a joint industry standard such as BARB here or work with Nielsen in the US, we – and they – will lack context and a common language to understand these numbers more fully.

The SVOD services will understandably point to other drivers for their approach to audience data. The data they are gathering from their own sophisticated user databases helps inform which programmes to commission and acquire, and how to surface those programmes to a viewer. Their company valuations and share prices are dependent on growth in subscriber numbers and ARPU, not the performance of any individual programme. And they’ve been clear that the act of revealing performance data is more about hinting at the cultural weight of their programmes – their ‘cultural metrics’, designed “to allow creatives to understand the reach of their work”.

But for the BBC, and more importantly for the wider UK TV sector, the lack of context and transparency does matter. The challenge for the BBC, and for many other broadcasters and platforms, is that in an incredibly competitive market we are all vying for talent and ideas to make the best possible programmes for our audiences. But if there is no standard, then we are not competing on a level playing field.

And how will talent understand how many people have seen their programmes, and who is watching? Without a standard way of evaluating the performance of programmes, channels and services, it is harder for them to make the right decisions about who to work with, how to shape and improve their programmes, and the best ways for them to be scheduled and distributed.

For our commercial peers, where business models can rely heavily on generating advertising income, a standardised currency is essential to inform advertising prices.

It is this need for a standard that makes BARB’s JIC measurement so valuable to the BBC, to commercial broadcasters and to the wider TV market. Having access to transparent, robust data is a critical part of the TV industry ecology in order to inform all of our creative and business decisions.

But whilst a standardised currency is incredibly valuable, it’s also essential that the standard evolves with audiences’ changing viewing habits.

Despite significant progress with BARB’s Project Dovetail, the TV industry still doesn’t have a consistent way of measuring total consumption of a programme across all platforms, over the life of that programme. Our system is still primarily based around viewing in the first 28 days after a programme has broadcast. But as the industry experiments with longer availability on VOD platforms, this is increasingly becoming an anachronism. As much as 60% of viewing of the first series of Fleabag occurred outside of 28 days of the first TX, through BBC Three on iPlayer.

Because of this, the BBC and our peers will continue to rely on a combination of both BARB’s data and our own array of data sources. For the BBC, this is our signed-in analytics across all of our online services (including iPlayer), our Live+7 and Live+28 reports, as well as our cross-media measurement survey, to name a few. We look at who is watching a given programme or channel, but also what they think of the programme and the impact it has had on them.

Of course, it is creativity, not data, that is the lifeblood of the TV industry. As the BBC’s Director of TV Charlotte Moore said last year: “I don’t believe any amount of data can tell you what to commission next”.

But having a common, shared understanding of what’s working and what isn’t – well, it isn’t a bad place to start.

Becky Marvell, Head of Television Strategy, BBC