BUNHILL : The truth is out there ... somewhere

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The Independent Online
Exactly 24.35 million of us watched the final episode of Only Fools and Horses at Christmas, 23.76 million sat hurling abuse at the telly during the England v Germany game in Euro 96, and around 300,000 tuned in for Channel 5's new soap opera, Family Affairs, last Monday.

Ever wondered how they know what we're all viewing? Is Big Brother watching us watching Kilroy? Or, more plausibly, perhaps there's some sort of electronic tagging device in our sets that tells TV analysts what's on the box in every home: "... 16 million and two ... and, yes, Bunhill's watching the programme about the burrowing abilities of the armadillo ... that's 16 million and three."

The truth, in fact, is rather less sinister. Somewhere out there are 4,500 confessional souls whose every lapse in taste is recorded by the Broadcasters' Audience Research Board (BARB) and used as a proxy for who's watching what throughout the country. So whatever your age, class or ethnic origin, someone will be smashing up the TV set on your behalf at any mention of the election.

The technology, meanwhile, is supplied by the business services group Taylor Nelson and comes in the form of a black box perched on top of the set. The information is downloaded for "interrogation" by the ratings analysts.

Now heaven knows the identity of these people who make up the sample. Perhaps they're the same mysterious but "representative" figures who respond to opinion polls - and we all know how reliable they are.

However, Peter Marsh at Taylor Nelson says 4,500 is the biggest TV "panel" in the world, and the Independent Television Commission agrees that the system is as sophisticated as it could be. Mr Marsh also points out that, unlike opinion polls, people can't lie or change their minds.

I'm not sure about that last argument. I'm willing to wager that members of the sample audience have at some time tuned their TVs into a documentary about the didactic imperatives of post-structuralist sculpture, and then nipped next door to watch Noel's House Party.

Failing all this, however, we still have the famous "kettle on" power surge at the end of momentous TV events - a phenomenon, we were told, that was particularly violent following the England v Germany match last summer. I wasn't at all convinced about this. After all, when you've ritually abused yourself with a six-pack of lager and a takeaway curry, are you really going to want a cup of tea?

AMID all the election frenzy last week, few papers paid any attention to a demand from employers' organisations that the Government shift April Fools' Day out of the working week.

Office pranks on 1 April may seem like harmless fun, but apparently they are costing British business millions of pounds each year. Last week, for instance, the CBI reported the case of a chief executive who had to be in the office for 8 o'clock one morning to take a phone call from Tokyo about a potentially lucrative contract. The previous night, however, junior workers had got hold of his office security pass and replaced his picture with a photo of a Spice Girl. Unable to get past reception the following morning, the boss missed the call and lost out on the contract.

And in another incidence of high-risk tomfoolery last week, a unit trust manager apparently piled money into an obscure biotechnology company in Australia after being told that it had found a way of cloning the wombat.

However, these horror stories have been given a happy ending since all three of the main political parties agreed that the employers' request should be nodded through. As from today, therefore, April Fools' Day will fall on a Sunday.

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