She's been a good old yardstick, but now Barb must adapt or die

Adam Stanhope, head of the youth channel Rapture TV, says the old viewer ratings are going down the tubes

As acronyms become the new chat-up lines for media students one of the most enduring of the breed seems to have all but disappeared. It doesn't ooze sex appeal like WAPs, nor does it lure investors like B2Bs, and it's certainly not pervading bar talk like URLs. Yes, poor old Barb has lost out to a new generation of digital acronyms.

As acronyms become the new chat-up lines for media students one of the most enduring of the breed seems to have all but disappeared. It doesn't ooze sex appeal like WAPs, nor does it lure investors like B2Bs, and it's certainly not pervading bar talk like URLs. Yes, poor old Barb has lost out to a new generation of digital acronyms.

Barb (Broadcast Audience Research Board) has always favoured the mass terrestrial channels against the plethora of multi-channels, particularly Sky Sports. But now a new and more accurate measurement has emerged, via the internet, to knock Barb of its perch.

When Rapture first launched e-trippers back in April, it failed to register on the Barb system despite generating around 3.5 million hits. (This was only promoted via the TV channel itself.) As Rapture goes to 24-hour broadcasting on 24 July and its convergent programming increases, internet measurement will become a more important yardstick for our advertisers. And this will apply across all convergent television projects - the TV of the future.

Barb is boring, Barb is dull, Barb is old fashioned. But Barb still has more impact on what goes out on our TV sets than anything else.

It was formed in 1980 and is responsible for deciding how TV viewing is measured and reported. It is made up of a consortium of broadcasters across ITV, BBC and multi-channel players as well as the IPA which represents advertisers. This group appoints a research company (RC) to carry out the measurement and delivery of the TVRs (Television Ratings).

It is based on the use of a panel of homes, carefully chosen to represent the entire UK population. For the statisticians among you, there are about 4,500 of these homes, each one representing more than 5,000 "real" homes. Each panel home has a meter to monitor which channel the TV is tuned to, as well as a series of knobs for viewers to press to show which person in the house is actually viewing. The information is available to Barb subscribers the very next day.

The origin of all thiswas developed at the beginning of the commercial TV era in the Fifties - when everything was black and white and the only TV acronyms were BBC and ITV. And here lies the problem. To have endured so long the panel system is clearly very robust and has met its original specification - the measurement of mass channels in a market of very limited channel choice. Today, however, 200 channels are available to a growing population of digital viewers.

So how do Barb's numbers stack up? Of the 4,500 panel homes only 1,500 have multi-channel TV and of these maybe 600 are digital. So, for each of the 200 channels one can argue that there are only three panel homes. For "non-digital" TV the equivalent ratio of panel homes to channels is about 600 to one.

Regardless of the choice available, most people will only watch a handful of channels so the 600 digital panelists used by Barb cannot even begin to reflect viewing across the board. One symptom of this is that viewing levels for digital channels fluctuate wildly. If one of a particular channel's more dedicated Barb panel viewers goes on holiday a third of viewing is instantly lost.

To make matters worse, not all viewing in Barb's digital homes is measured. Digital cable is not measured and the ONdigital measurement is far from complete. These omissions are not Barb's fault. It has been held hostage by the platform providers' specifications for their set-top boxes.

Within this system of measuring viewing, Barb is doing everything it can to stay in touch. (It recently appointed AGB Italia to provide new, more future-proof meters than those currently used by TNS.) This is undoubtedly very important given the changes we are likely to see - convergence, broadband, clever compression systems and growth in capability of mobile communications.

However, this does not address the crucial issue of the number of panel homes measuring each channel. What's needed is decent-sized panels representing each channel. A panel system that was designed to measure mass channels cannot be expected to deal with the segmented channel structure in digital. This means a complete restructuring of the panel homes away from terrestrial and towards multi-channel homes.

If this does not happen, Barb will be devalued and its original concept - to provide a single viewing currency - will be lost.

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