Blackout of new TV ratings system causes problems for broadcasters

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The Independent Online

A new system for measuring television ratings that was due to be used from 1 January has been put back until March, creating problems for broadcasters and advertisers.

A new system for measuring television ratings that was due to be used from 1 January has been put back until March, creating problems for broadcasters and advertisers.

The Broadcasters' Audience Research Board (Barb) has been forced to suspend the supply of figures this week after problems caused by the introduction of new equipment and the selection of an entirely new panel of viewers, the first for more than 30 years.

Viewing figures are measured daily by sophisticated tracking devices installed in the homes of panel members, who are selected to provide a representative sample of the national population. These devices monitor their television sets, video recorders and any set-top box decoders for satellite or cable services.

The resulting ratings are studied avidly by broadcasters to assess the popularity of particular programmes and determine future scheduling and commissioning. The hitch means the BBC, for example, does not know how well the dramatic denouement of the wife-battering storyline in its soap EastEnders performed.

But it is potentially even more of a problem for the commercial stations, which are reliant on advertisers. Channel 4, for instance, would have been expecting good figures from its expensive drama Shackleton, starring Kenneth Branagh.

Barb has now announced that instead of the usual daily figures, it will be releasing no data for a fortnight to ensure the statistics are up to standard.

And the new measuring system will not be complete for up to three months because of delays in installing equipment in the homes of the new panel members. Not all the 5,100 homes selected to take part have yet received the complex equipment used to log their viewing habits.

A Barb spokesman said: "This is the first time in over 30 years that a new panel is being recruited entirely from scratch and, given the complexities of the service, we feel it is prudent to ensure that the entire system is thoroughly checked and meets Barb's high standards before releasing data."

Barb is funded by the terrestrial television stations and Sky to provide the viewing statistics. The new measuring system, once running, should be more accurate, because it increases the number of homes from 4,300 to 5,100 and will more closely reflect the make-up of the British population as a whole than the old system.

The television stations had suspected there could be problems. Parallel sets of figures from the old and new systems produced in December showed a 5 per cent fall in viewing time among the new panel. But it was thought that the fall was probably due to the failure of panel members to click the appropriate buttons for the system to work.

Panel members are not paid to take part, but receive small amounts of gift vouchers to compensate for disruption.

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