An enormous task awaits the TV industry next year. Not the mundane
challenges about prettying up the Six O’Clock News, with or without a
kilt, or persuading more people to pay for digital services. The real
challenge is to develop a ratings system sophisticated enough to tell
broadcasters and advertisers what is really going on out there.
The scale of the emerging problem can be gauged from the Independent on
Sunday in recent weeks. An article appeared suggesting that the BBC News
24 audience might fall to as low as 1000 viewers. The BBC replied that,
according to its own research, 760,000 people a week were watching on
cable and no less than three million on the overnight terrestrial
At first sight, such figures seem to be irreconcilable, yet both could
be true with absolute audiences dropping very low in the middle of the
night and reach magnifying things beautifully across an entire week.
The real point is that we do not really know what the audience for News
24 is other than courtesy of the BBC’s own research. Other than giving a
general feel for the state of the multi-channel TV market, this may not
be of huge significance, because News 24 is funded by the licence fee.
Accurate, independent viewing figures would enable viewers to decide
whether they are getting a good deal with such a service and show what
percentage of its target universe it was hitting. In the case of
services funded at least in part by advertising, accurate information is
more and more vital.
There has long been the view that traditional terrestrial television
viewing panels are simply much too small to come up with accurate
A few people on the panel turn off or switch on and ratings for minority
channels can either collapse or be boosted.
Unless such problems are addressed, more and more people will end up
doing their own rating, and you will lose the single most important
characteristic of current audience research - a common currency.
It is understandable that the terrestrial broadcasters have little
immediate interest in shaking up the existing system on the grounds that
it probably overstates their dominance, and why would they want to
If multi-channel TV is something that will creep up on us as part of
generational change then what better than to have viewing panels stuffed
with long serving members who might fit the necessary demographics but
who remain wedded to traditional viewing patterns.
More sophisticated technology is becoming available. The Arbitron
experiment in Manchester with Personal Portable Meters will
automatically monitor listening and viewing habits by their carriers
wherever they are, including pubs, cars and offices - media consumption
not usually counted. Then there is computer viewing and listening which
no one has a handle on yet.
It is best for all concerned that the most accurate, independent
statistics become available as soon as possible which represent the
growing diversity of media consumption - whether it shows the audience
is 1000 or three million. Advertisers should require nothing less.
Raymond Snoddy is media editor of The Times.