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Last Updated: Wednesday, 8 December, 2004, 10:49 GMT
Watching you, watching us
By James Holden
News research manager, BBC Audience and Consumer Research

BBC News says that audiences are its raison d'etre. But how can it possibly know what people want when millions use its services every day? Audience expert James Holden explains.

An unimpressed David and Denise from the Royle Family
If the news was failing to inspire people, how would editors know?

What does your job entail - how do you work with BBC News?

One of the BBC's core values is that "audiences are at the heart of everything we do".

The role of the BBC Audience & Consumer Research team is to be the voice of the audience to the BBC.

My role is to provide BBC News with audience information to enable us to put audiences at the heart of our thinking.

Through a mixture of qualitative and quantitative research techniques, we:

  • Analyse the changing audience environment in which BBC News operates to enable it to remain as relevant as possible and help inform overall strategic thinking (for example identifying barriers to acquiring digital television or changing attitudes towards broadcasting, personal choice or taste and decency).
  • Identify opportunities for change, innovation and improvement amongst BBC news and current affairs services and programmes.
  • Identify emerging trends and stimulate creative thinking around audiences' lives, preferences and needs.
With so much output, how can BBC News possibly know what its audiences want?

The BBC listens to its audiences in four principal ways:

  • Audience research and polling. This is the primary role of Audience Research within the BBC.
  • Consultative and advisory bodies around the UK.
  • Public consultation: The BBC is required in a number of circumstances to carry out a formal process of public consultation - for example, before it puts proposals to the Secretary of State for the launch of a new public service, or before it makes substantive changes to the nature of its UK public television or radio services.
The BBC plays a leading role in establishing, developing and funding industry-wide audience research
James Holden
  • Audience feedback: The BBC receives regular, spontaneous feedback from its audiences as well as inviting contact with them through its solicited contact service - BBC Information. This amounts to millions of communications each year.
How does the BBC find out who's watching or listening to what?

The BBC plays a leading role in establishing, developing and funding industry-wide audience research.

It jointly founded BARB and RAJAR which manage measurement panels for television and radio respectively.

Ongoing representative tracking studies help us to understand perceptions of BBC News and offer key strategic insights.

Do you just find out how many people are watching - or can you ascertain why they're watching and what they're interested in?

The BBC is not just concerned with how many are watching or listening (93% of the UK are enjoying the BBC every week), the quality, impact and distinctiveness of our content is just as important.

A 4,000-strong panel enables us to provide information on an audience appreciation index (or AI) of programmes.

This survey can be tailored to ask questions about specific programmes and services and how much the public enjoyed a particular programme and specifically surveys the attitudes of young people toward BBC programmes and services.

Recent studies such as the award-winning BBC Daily Life Study have enabled us to understand what people are doing whilst they are consuming different media and even what mood they are in whilst doing so.

And complex in-home research techniques are also used to help us observe and understand how and why audiences interact with the TV, radio or internet.

Are these figures just buried away or do programme makers take them into account and alter their programmes accordingly?

Although not every decision is based entirely on perceived audience demands (and nor should it be), understanding the changing audience context (particularly in the digital age) is now a core part of any programme maker's working life.

Bringing audiences to life, be it via vox pops, focus groups, meet the audience sessions for journalists or even enabling programme makers to visit audiences in their own homes are a key part of my role.



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