Watching the boxWe all know that the advertising world is undergoing upheaval, digital seems to be taking away audiences from the mainstay of deliver, television; ad formats online don’t seem to be offering that holy grail of click throughs it promised; video pre-rolls, in-player and in-stream video are found “annoying” by a worrying 82% of the audience according to Forrester’s “Interactive Marketing Forecast 2007-2012” . I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know.

But part of me feels that perhaps we are just seeing how things truly are at last, the wool is being rudely ripped away from our eyes. Let me explain.

Working in digital you get used to knowing fairly accurately how many of your audience are paying attention to you and what they are doing. This is scarey. If you can measure a click through you can directly assess the effectiveness of your visuals. But digital figures rarely have the impact of TV figures, even now – eg 17,000 online vs 1 million viewers for a typical one off doc on Channel 4. Such figures and the fact that they can’t be measured have meant that essentially advertisers have had an easy ride – the number of people viewing an ad is extrapolated from the number of people watching a programme. 3 million for the opening of Big Brother this year? Lovely.

However, collecting audience figures for TV has always been an arcane art and I believe that it’s been done wrongly and that figures have been over-inflated, contributing to feelings that a) digital isn’t delivering and b) tv audiences are dropping off massively, when they are probably reducing more reasonably. Here’s how it works.

BARB (Broadcasters Audience Research Board) interview 52,000 people per year to determine various audience types and viewing behaviours. Of this 52,000, they then choose a number of respondents from different audience segments, 5,100 home to be exact representing 11,500 viewers, to receive a black box which connects to their tv and which records what they are doing, including what programmes are videoed, added to hard disk etc. All people in the household register their presence when they watch tv using a remote control. From the information that is collected BARB extrapolate total viewing figures. ie from a sample of 10,000 people they will extrapolate Millions of viewers. But there are 60 million people in the UK so this represents 0.0085% of the population….

Here’s a story I was told and was assured was true, though the cynical part of me thinks it is an urban myth. One programme regularly received high ratings but every 4th week they dropped to below 1 million. All sort of theories were put forward for this but in the end it transpired that every 4th week a long distance lorry driver on the BARB programme had to do a trip that took him away over night. He wasn’t around and his absence caused and extrapolated drop of about 2 million viewers.

All this goes to show two things –

1) digital works far better for advertisers than tv because it stops agencies from complacency about who is watching and why
2) get your measurements right or reap the reward.


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