The viewers are there: so who are they?

Cable channels have had enough of being ignored by broadcasting ratings researchers. Stephen Armstrong reports on their battle for recognition
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The Independent Online
Just who is actually watching all those niche cable channels we keep hearing about? How many viewers see Topless Darts on L!veTV, or Paint it Red, the entertainment show on Channel One? Until now, nobody was really sure. Official figures from Barb, the broadcasting industry's ratings research bureau, does not provide accurate, broken-down figures.

But that could be changing, as small cable channels band together to produce some credible figures of their own.

All right, all right, I can see that I'm going to have to seek some indulgence on this one. We're not just talking about audience research, which is bad enough, but about research into the audience of small, cable-only TV stations, which is far worse. You need to know, however, that this is very, very important stuff indeed.

Research isn't as fun and glamorous as hanging out with presenters and writing witty columns about what you did on Sunday or a two-week ad shoot in the Caribbean, but it is the very lifeblood of media. Programmes live or die by it, editors are sacked because of it, and countless millions of advertising pounds change hands every week as a result of what it says. That's why research departments are filled with that air of sullen, resentful smugness. "We're really important," researchers believe. "So why does everyone think we're boring?"

It is the same sort of feeling you get in a cable-only channel. "We're the future of media," they believe. "Why does everyone snigger about us?"

Small, cable-only channels really hate that joke about it being cheaper to mail all the viewers a videotape than actually put the programmes on air. That goes for all of them: Channel One, L!ve TV (owned by Mirror Group, a significant shareholder in The Independent), NBC Super Channel, BET, European Business News, The Landscape Channel, the Sci Fi Channel, Euronews, The Performance Channel and, as they say, many more. Given that Rupert Murdoch is buying up all the sports and film rights in the world, this kind of low-entry-cost channel is probably the future of television.

But there is a problem. So small are these channels, or rather so small is Barb's measurement of the cable universe, that their argument for credibility and respect falls on deaf ears.

No one today has reliable figures for the wee audiences cable channels apparently get. They have the disturbing habit of falling into the deadly sounding category "other viewing" in cable and satellite homes on the official audience measurement figures.

Being "other viewing", of course, makes it hellishly hard for the channels to sell ad space or analyse programme performance or do the myriad things that audience data allow most broadcasters to do.

Cable operators and cable channels have been fighting for Barb to include special electronic people-meters in cable homes, as they do with other households, and collect reliable cable data. There is, by definition, no cable-only viewing in satellite homes and consequently there is no accurate steer. So the cable stations have begun researching themselves.

"Advertising agencies had been giving cable channels money as favours from mates," says Helen Harrison, the consultant charged by cable channels to set up the new ratings research. "But they needed reliable ratings to justify this to their clients."

The channels and operators have set up their own diary research, with 1,300 individuals across the country.

Harrison says: "We researched in January and we are running another two- week sweep at the moment."

The first results were interesting but inconclusive, she says. According to the survey, cable homes seem to have roughly 20 per cent more viewing than Barb currently gives them credit for - possibly because cable companies are keen to connect up more than one TV set in cable homes, while satellite dishes tend to be wired into just one.

It is clear that cable channels aren't rivalling Coronation Street. Most of them had a reach of under 1 per cent, even if you looked only at homes that actually took those channels. The honourable exception was the Sci Fi Channel, which had a 1.6 per cent reach (or 24 per cent if you look only at those homes where the service is available).

Advertisers do have some concerns about this do-it-yourself data. In the good old days of radio research, before the mighty Rajar emerged, commercial radio stations were only obliged to enter the industry research programme for a single three-month period between April and June in each year. Their performance in this period was then deemed to be an accurate reflection of their overall audience and they sold airtime on the back of it.

Unsurprisingly, the stations simply bribed the listeners to tune in during that three-month period and hyped the listening shamelessly. The on-air giveaways reached heights as ludicrous as an entire house, which was handed over to an eager listener by a station in Birmingham.

Even Auntie Beeb couldn't turn a blind eye. To counter the millions being thrust into the commercial audiences' hands, Radio 1 used to operate the "31 Days in May" giveaway. Listeners got the chance to win all sorts of nonsense from the collection of second-hand record company giveaways that filled Broadcasting House's store cupboards.

There are some fears at ad agencies that cable channels are taking the same route. L!ve TV's OJ Simpson: Beating the Rap is the most expensive programme it has ever made, at pounds 350,000. The programme is running during the current research period. Is L!ve putting on costly programmes simply in order to boost its audience?

"Nonsense," says Mark Cullen, L!ve's deputy managing director. "It started in the same week that the civil court case in the US started. If we run it at the same time, we get publicity. What's the point of running it at any other time?"

OK, but isn't it a temptation all the same? "I think that is a little unfair," says David Brennan, vice-president of research at the satellite and cable broadcaster Flextech Television. "Yes, with radio people had huge giveaways on air, but in the end all stations were doing it and so the sheer volume of promotions cancelled everything out and you were left with a level playing field."

Meanwhile, to reassure advertisers, the fight for Barb recognition goes on. For some, it is not just a fight for cash."Barb is a system purely designed to measure four or five terrestrial channels and it is in danger of becoming a dinosaur," says Cullen. "As digital TV comes on line, cable channels grow and new media enters the arena, it is going to have to adapt. The fact that we have to do this research and we have no guarantee that we will get accurate viewing data from the official survey shows that [Barb] is just burying its head in the sand."