BBC NEWS Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific Arabic Spanish Russian Chinese Welsh

 You are in:  Entertainment: TV and Radio
Front Page 
UK Politics 
TV and Radio 
New Media 
Talking Point 
In Depth 

Commonwealth Games 2002

BBC Sport

BBC Weather

Tuesday, 19 February, 2002, 11:48 GMT
TV ratings under the microscope
Nick Higham
By media correspondent Nick Higham

Coronation Street is just about the most popular programme on British television.

Advertisers pay upwards of 30,000 for a 30 second spot in the programme to reach one of its main target audiences, housewives with children, in London alone.

Yet on one Friday night earlier this year ITV's top soap apparently achieved a television rating (TVR) among housewives with children in London of just three points.

In other words, just three per cent of stay-at-home mums in the region were watching - most nights the equivalent figure would be more than 20.

Coronation Street remains one of Britain's top TV shows
Coronation Street remains one of Britain's top TV shows
Then again, in the Anglia region the other day ITV recorded a housewife TVR of 18 between 1000GMT and 1600GMT, a respectable peak-time rating but a figure almost unheard of for daytime TV.

It's anomalies like these produced by the new Broadcasters Audience Research Board (Barb) TV audience measurement system that have thrown commercial television and its advertisers into such a tizzy.

It's one thing if audience figures for minority channels are unreliable, quite another if people can't believe the figures for the most popular programmes on the most popular commercial channel.


The television ratings failed to appear in the first fortnight of the new year, and when they were published they showed wide differences compared with the figures for January 2001, after Barb replaced every single household in its survey.

Preparing for the changeover took longer than expected, and Barb had difficulty recruiting enough homes to its new panel: it started the year with 3,800, rather than its target for the full panel of 5,100.

The irony was that the new ratings were supposed to be more accurate.

Pop Idol's final was watched by more than 13 million people
Pop Idol's final was watched by more than 13 million people
The make-up of the panel had been changed to reflect more accurately the make-up of the population, and to measure viewing of minority channels more accurately the effective size of the panel was increased by a third.

After the initial disruption, Barb now claims things are returning to normal.

Comparing January 2002 figures with those for January 2001 was, the organisation says, misleading.

The drop in viewing, especially for ITV, which caused so much alarm a few weeks ago was merely a continuation of a trend which had been developing throughout last year.


What's more, Barb says the drop has since been reversed. Recorded viewing steadily increased throughout last month.

In the week ended 10 February, helped partly by the extraordinary success of ITV's Pop Idol, total viewing hit 25.59 hours per person - actually more than the 25.08 hours recorded by the old measurement system in the week before Christmas.

Part of the increase may be real; part may be the result of a "re-education" process among members of the panel who were sometimes forgetting to press the buttons on the special remote controls which record who is watching the TV at any given moment.

E4's audience was helped by Big Brother's success
E4's audience was helped by Big Brother's success

Nonetheless the episode has shaken confidence in the ratings system.

That's especially serious for the advertisers, agencies and airtime sales companies who use the ratings as a currency with which to negotiate the price of airtime.

A senior executive at one leading media buyer told me: "It's a complete and utter mess."


An analysis by Media Planning Group showed huge variations in the viewing of many digital channels among one particular target audience, young upmarket men.

Film Four's audience among this group was down 67% in January than a year earlier, MTV's was down 26%, but the ITN News channel audience was up 148%, E4's up 465% and Carlton Digital's up a staggering 1165%.

Measuring viewing to minority channels by relatively small categories of people is the most difficult task Barb sets itself.

Such wild fluctuations in viewing year on year suggest it is not yet carrying it out to everyone's satisfaction.

That's why smaller channels in particular are unhappy with the new data, and why there has even been talk of them breaking away from Barb to launch their own research.

So far, advertising agencies say, the uncertainties surrounding the ratings have not had an impact on how much money advertisers actually spend.

But if the problems persist, that could change. If it does - and if some of the stakeholders in the ratings system think their bottom line is suffering - the pressure on Barb will only increase.


A version of this column appears in the BBC magazine Ariel.

See also:

31 Jan 02 | TV and Radio
TV ratings spat rumbles on
15 Jan 02 | TV and Radio
Ratings mysteries solved
Internet links:

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Links to more TV and Radio stories are at the foot of the page.

E-mail this story to a friend

Links to more TV and Radio stories