Not for the first time, the Broadcasters' Audience Research Board (BARB), which provides the TV ratings data used to trade £4bn a year in airtime revenues, finds itself under scrutiny. A session at the Edinburgh TV Festival entitled 'BARB - the number's up?' highlighted uncertainty over whether this system of TV audience measurement can deliver the data demanded by advertisers.
Its tightly defined remit - to monitor TV viewing in homes - means it says nothing about audiences in offices or pubs. And some believe it is no longer in step with the way media agencies plan client campaigns. 'Agencies have restructured to understand how consumers use a range of media, but the lack of integration between BARB and measurement systems such as NRS (print) and Rajar (radio) means we have no real sense of how consumption of media overlaps,' says MediaCom head of consumer insight Mick Mernagh.
While clients and agencies crave media-neutral, consumer-centric insights, media owners fund research to reinforce the strength of their own media.
Even if they found a commercial justification for conducting cross-media research, BARB chief executive Bjarme Thelin says there would be massive complexities in pooling the measurement systems. 'BARB provides minute-by-minute viewing data on an overnight basis. Other surveys are less frequent and operate according to different geographical patterns.
To combine them you'd be looking at a high cost and loss of detail in what BARB delivers.'
ITV and News International acknowledged the need for some form of integrated cross-media research by lending their weight to an initiative from the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising (IPA) called TouchPoints. Due to launch next spring, it aims to analyse how consumers use media. Participants in the NOP-led survey will 'log' which media they consume using handheld devices.
The findings will be integrated with established measurement systems such as BARB and Rajar to give an insight into consumption patterns. But IPA research chief Lynne Robinson does not see TouchPoints as a replacement for sophisticated systems such as BARB.
What about alternatives from research big-hitters such as Arbitron and Gfk? The latter has just unveiled MediaWatch, a wristwatch-like device that can measure consumer contact with radio, TV and cinema via a recording unit that notes audio signals three times a minute. It can also measure viewing of poster sites, provided they have transmitters installed that send a signal to MediaWatch as the wearer passes the sites. Measuring the consumption of print media involves survey participants pressing a button on the MediaWatch to indicate which newspaper or magazine they are reading.
Knut Hackbarth, head of international operations at GfK technology arm Telecontrol, says the system provides out-of-home and consumer-centric research. But what about the shortcomings of the device? 'Our wristwatches are limited in what they can say about digital and time-shifted viewing,' acknowledges Hackbarth. In addition, because the watches need to be sent away to have the information they have collected downloaded, they do not provide continuous real-time data.
So what do agencies think? Instead of bolting the different measurement systems together, should we ditch the lot and start again with GfK?
'At this stage, there's no way advertisers would benefit by replacing BARB with the one-size-fits-all approach,' says Carat Insight deputy managing director Mark Greenstreet.
Greenstreet and Robinson think that the biggest issue facing BARB is the need for it to get to grips with the way in which viewers now move randomly in and out of the digital interactive stream in short bursts at any time of the day.
Thelin argues that BARB is moving forward as quickly as possible: 'We're adding services that look at personal video recorders (PVRs), TV sponsorship, interactive use and lifestyle (see Data file). But there are limits to what the technology can achieve.'
Besides, BARB can never keep everyone happy. BSkyB understands this, and fills in the gaps in the information that BARB can offer by conducting its own audience research.
Next year the broadcaster will be joining forces with Taylor Nelson Sofres to launch a 20,000-strong viewer panel that aims to link its viewing data with the TNS purchasing panel.
A BSkyB spokesman denies the panel constitutes a criticism of BARB: 'We want to know more about subscriber behaviour so we can minimise churn and cross-sell appropriate products.'
Put all these developments together and they clearly challenge BARB's position as an industry standard. 'All audience measurement systems must address these concerns,' says Hackbarth.
'As audiences become more fragmented, either they will bring these issues under their control, or parallel measurement systems will grow up to service the companies they aren't providing for.'
DATA FILE - BARB
On Friday BARB announced that it has commissioned a Lifestyle Insights survey to offer more detailed information about the behaviour and spending habits of its 5000-home viewing panel. The survey will enable BARB data to be analysed against information about leisure time, travel, car ownership, home and shopping and other media consumption. Commissioned for an initial two years, BARB says the survey will improve the ability to plan campaigns and target airtime. It also claims that the data will aid understanding of viewer motivations. Groups now identifiable within BARB include high spenders on gardening and DIY, cinema-goers, car drivers and late-home workers.