Ratings issue raises hackles in UK, Australia

The television, ad and allied industries swear by them, swear at them, but cannot do without them.

Televison ratings, indispensable to the media world when it comes to evaluating, predicting and shaping schedules of what‘s to appear on the small screen, are a contentious issue not restricted to our shores, it seems.

While the unseemly fracas over the authenticity of the TAM and Intam ratings last September shook the industry out of somnolence, it also brought home the realization that intrinsic biases and a lack of alternatives will continue to be around for some time at least. Recent reports emanating from Britain and Australia are but images of the controversy that erupted in India and indicators of what is to be expected when the country switches to a single ratings system by mid 2002.

Britain faces barbs

A recent shakeup of the measurement system in operation in Britain for the last 10 years has spurred the media there into some heavy-duty criticism. The Broadcasters‘ Audience Research Board (Barb) figures, the ratings currency in the UK, were not released for the first week of January 2002 and teething problems with a new ratings system are likely to take some more weeks to settle down. The number of volunteers, say media reports emanating from the country, is not keeping pace with the almost exponential growth in the choice of what to watch. Each volunteer consequently represents 12,000 of the country‘s population. "Since Barb is really not much more than a shell, effectively controlled by well-established broadcasters, it has little incentive to change for the benefit of newer, smaller television companies. Nor would all the media buyers and advertisers and data-analysing firms that have prospered under Barb welcome the disruption a truly new system would bring," alleges a report in the Media Guardian.

The worst fear is that TV ratings will plummet because of the different measurement system. Ten years ago - the last time the Barb system was adjusted - it took weeks to settle down. And Rajar, the radio audience ratings system, suffered major discrepancies when it changed its methods in 1995. Figures for the final quarter of that year had to be weighted to produce results comparable with previous quarters, after some stations apparently mislaid up to one million listeners.

The key difference with the new Barb system, say reports, is in the panel, which consists of 5,300 new homes - 600 more than the last panel. Members of the panel have been changed in the past but this is the first time in more than 30 years that the entire panel has been built from scratch. The new Barb panel has been signed up in the last few months and Barb is hoping it will be more geographically and demographically representative. However, parallel tests in December showed that while overall weekly reach remained the same, total viewing hours were around five per cent lower on the new panel.

Media reports trace the roots of this situation to the mid-80s, when the launch of Channel 4 and Sky, relentless Conservative questioning of the BBC licence fee, and the reorganisation of ITV as a more commercially aggressive entity, made ratings into a more competitive, even political issue.

During the early 90s, the creation of further channels, and the arrival of league tables as a way of judging all sorts of British activities, cemented the perceived importance of audience numbers. The media‘s enthusiasm for self-analysis did the rest. In their new avatar, dissected and analysed ratings - how many people saw a programme, and what proportion they formed of the total television audience at the time - are measured on a minute-by-minute basis, to be collected and digested overnight.

Audience monitoring in the UK, however, goes back to 1936 when the BBC began conducting audience surveys. Its main purpose, in the high-minded spirit of the corporation at the time, was not to count listeners or viewers but to see what they thought about the programmes. Volunteers kept diaries of their broadcasting consumption and sent them in periodically; from these, a precise Appreciation Index(AI) was collated for every programme. These scores were then privately circulated to the delight or otherwise of those involved. The flaw in this process was that, as a poor programme shed viewers, it was sometimes left with a small but fiercely loyal core of fans, who would give it an inflated AI.

However, commercial television‘s debut in 1955 necessitated a different kind of information. "Advertisers were terrified that people would not stay with the commercial break, that they would go and put the teapot on," says Richard Platt, a veteran media buyer and broadcaster. The frequent, nervy measurement of audience totals began at this moment.

For the next quarter of a century, these two ratings philosophies ran in parallel. In 1976, the Annan committee on the future of broadcasting recommended a single ratings system. In 1981, Barb finally began functioning. Barb itself is a limited company, jointly owned by the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5, BSkyB and the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising. The Barb system, appropriately for a television-soaked culture, was then more probing than in any other country. Within a few years, though, British viewing had started to fragment. Channel 4 had been founded, and video recorders had become cheap and popular. There was a protracted controversy about whether and how programmes watched days after their broadcast should be counted. Satellite and cable television further complicated Barb‘s task. Throughout the 80s and 90s it tried to keep up by updating its black boxes and widening its panel of viewers.

Despite all intentions, however, its veracity has continued to remain suspect.

All‘s not well in Ozland either

Down Under, meanwhile, it‘s a problem of a slightly different nature. A year after the inauspicious debut of the OzTAM television ratings system, rival broadcasters are still fighting it out trying to get the message across that it is they who are in the right.

The OzTAM system was introduced in January 2001 after AC Nielsen was dumped as the official TV audience measurement supplier and replaced by Australian Television Research(ATR). Figures provided by OzTAM, ATR‘s ratings administrator which is jointly owned by the commercial networks, showed that top-rating network Kerry Packer‘s Channel Nine‘s grip on the number one spot was being loosened by Channel Seven.

The conflict reached a climax six months after the new system‘s introduction when a furious Nine called for an independent audit of it. The report by New Zealand Professor Peter Danaher gave neither system a clean bill of health, identifying glitches in the data from both incumbent OzTAM and the old AC Nielsen. While OzTAM‘s data favoured a younger audience, ACNielsen‘s data was clearly skewed towards an older audience, traditionally Nine‘s domain.

Nine continued using parallel ratings from AC Nielsen until its ratings swung around, allowing it to retain the No.1 position for the year, although Seven and Ten had narrowed the gap.

One could draw parallels here to the declaration by Zee Telefilms earlier and endorsed by Sony Entertainment Television that they are delinking their ad rates from rating points.

Pointing to the emergence of a Star-led, unipolar system, Sony Entertainment CEO Kunal Dasgupta has been quoted as saying the advertising world must accept some currency other than TRPs.

Coming back to the case of Nine, although the storm clouds have dissipated and the Kerry Packer-promoted network has been conspicuously silent since its early criticisms, the transition has left it battle-weary. With everyone twisting their figures to suit their sales pitches during the annual rate negotiations, it seems every commercial broadcaster emerged a winner in 2001.

With more than $2 billion worth of television advertising dollars at stake, it is no wonder all the networks issued a weighty analysis of the figures tailored to put them in the best light.

OzTAM chief executive Louise McCann concedes that last year was one of the toughest in her 22-year career in television. She weathered a storm of much publicised attacks by Nine, which complained that OzTAM‘s data favoured a younger audience, an assumption confirmed by Dr Danaher. However, he also identified deficiencies in ACNielsen‘s data, describing the panel as tired and skewed towards an older audience, which is traditionally Nine‘s domain. Dr Danaher recommended several modifications to the panel of 9000 viewers in Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth, and these have been made.

Nine Melbourne managing director Graeme Yarwood too conceded that the transition last year had been extremely difficult, particularly at a time when the advertising market had started to shrink.

Similar turbulent times lie ahead as the two ratings agencies ORG MARG‘s Intam and AC Nielsen‘s TAM prepare to create a new service mid-2002. Will a similar shake up be inevitable in the proposed TAM-INTAM merger? Watch this space for updates.

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