Asking people what they really, really want can be a risky business - sometimes they have the nerve to give you a good, old-fashioned honest answer. So this week's consultation initiative by Barb, led by its chief executive, Bjarne Thelin, is commendably brave.
On the other hand, it could be a case of getting your PR in first. Because, although Barb is arguably the world's best TV audience measurement system, its problem is that it hasn't a hope in hell of giving people what they want.
Its biggest challenge stems from the fact that we now have hundreds of channels, some watched by fewer than hundreds of people.
In an attempt to cope with this audience fragmentation, it tried in 2001 to increase its panel size from 3,000 to 5,100. However, there were problems recruiting a full panel and controversies about the historical compatibility of the new data raged over most of 2002.
A growing chunk of the audience watches "TV" on mobile devices or streamed to their computers. Barb, which has traditionally measured viewing via electronic metering devices sitting on top of living-room TV sets, risks becoming irrelevant.
Especially so when taken in the context of the imminent launch of SkyView, an initiative that will monitor viewing in 20,000 Sky Digital households.
It will be under-taken by Taylor Nelson Sofres in households that are already on TNS buying panels, so data on the impact of advertising on buying behaviour can, in theory, be derived.
Sky sources emphasise that this is in no way intended as a rival trading currency - and indeed, Sky remains a Barb subscriber and supporter. But there has been an increasing clamour for more detailed monitoring of a wider spectrum of channels.
If that's to be achieved on a joint-industry basis - thus preserving a gold-standard common currency - then Barb will have to look at increasing its panel size yet again. And, of course, that will be expensive. Alarmingly expensive. As, indeed, Barb keeps reminding its subscribers.
1. Although the BBC had been gathering TV audience data for years ahead of the launch of commercial television in 1955, the independent television companies decided to launch their own panel.
2. In 1961, the Joint Industry Committee for Television Audience Research, owned by the independent TV companies, ISBA and the IPA, was created to oversee commercial TV audience research. In 1968, Jictar awarded a new contract to Audits of Great Britain. AGB retained it until the formation of Barb in 1981.
3. Barb's creation unified audience research for the commercial and BBC sides of the industry. In 1984, there was another major step forward. Previously, the system only monitored what channel a household's main TV was tuned to. Now, through the use of "people-meters", it began recording which of the household's occupants were in front of the set at any one time.
4. There was major upheaval when a new contract was implemented in August 1991, but that was nothing compared with the shambles of January 2002. This time, the new contract involved the recruitment of a totally new panel - the first time this had been attempted since the 70s.
5. Teething troubles (not only in appointing a full panel but also in verifying the new data) forced Barb to suspend its ratings data supply for two weeks, which threw the television airtime market into chaos.
6. Barb has regained much of its credibility but the fiasco of 2002 has made it (or, more precisely, the broadcasters who underwrite Barb funding) cautious about embracing further change. Barb recently extended agreements with its primary research company contractors (RS-MB, Ipsos and ATR) until 2009.
7. Barb has, however, begun addressing some of the challenges of the digital age. In November, it announced it was looking at ways of measuring interactive TV viewing behaviour. It is also gearing up to offer ratings on time-shifted viewing, while, in April, it revealed that it would be participating in Rajar's fieldwork test of Arbitron PPM portable meters - devices that automatically record exposure to media with audio content. Arguably, these devices will be a cheaper and more accurate way of measuring both radio and television consumption.
WHAT IT MEANS FOR ...
- Broadcasters fear being forced into a greater investment in primary ratings research. Barb currently costs around £12 million a year but recruiting a larger panel under the current people-meter system could demand an exponential increase in funding requirements.
- Some of the bigger broadcasters see the new consultation process as a means of ensuring this will never happen. Meanwhile, the real challenge to the status quo arguably will come from Sky and its proposed new SkyView research.
ADVERTISERS AND AGENCIES
- There's a wide spectrum of opinion in the ad community about the future course Barb needs to chart.
- Conservatives believe that Barb is doing a good job in supplying a trading currency that everyone can agree on and that works. They argue that it's up to each advertiser or media owner to make good the data deficits they perceive in the areas that are important to their individual interests.
- Radicals argue that a fundamental shake-up is needed sooner rather than later. In effect, they'd like to see Barb and Rajar merge. With their funding pooled (the total would come to around £16 million) and Arbitron meters used for data gathering, a panel of 35,000 would be a possibility.
- However, Bjarne Thelin, the chief executive of Barb, says the organisation is unlikely to embrace that sort of proposal in the foreseeable future.
"Our focus will remain on TV," he states. "That's what our role is. When we look forward, we are looking at what is the best way of developing what we do to serve television."
This article was first published on Campaign