Last year, BARB celebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary. The organisation was set up in 1981 to provide the broadcast industry with a standardised audience measurement service. A non-profit making limited company, it is owned jointly by the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Five, BSkyB and the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising, and provides data not only to broadcasters and advertisers, but also to a whole host of organisations involved in the industry. So what makes the data so important? "It's the fabric of television in many ways," says BARB's chief executive, Bjarne Thelin. "It influences the way people look at audiences, and the way that people look at advertising campaigns. It's the currency by which advertising is traded. It's data that people look at every day."
Indeed they do. For it's only when a programme maker's show is not rating very highly that they look to dismiss the validity of such data. Thelin remains philosophical about this: "People always like to be told good news. If it's not such good news then people may question things. I think realistically the service is a major investment by the industry. There's a fairly massive scale of audience data in television, compared to other media, so it's very significant. The ideal would be to have a census of every single member of the population. It's not possible to do that though, so we have to go with a survey design, which has been developed over the years in order to make it as representative of the population as possible."
BARB works very hard to guarantee that its audience panel - made up of 11,100 viewers in 5,100 homes - is representative of the whole population. A range of individuals and households ('controls') are used. BARB also conducts an Establishment Survey to obtain information on these controls, as this information is not readily available from ordinary UK Census data. This ongoing process involves around 52,000 interviews a year and is a random probability survey, which means that any household within the UK has an equal likelihood of being selected for interview. Any changes in the population can also be identified so that the panel can be updated and adjusted to ensure that the panel continues to reflect the television-owning population.
Regardless of this sophisticated selection process, many viewers still think they can put themselves forward to be on the panel. "Part of the whole approach of BARB is that we're not seeking 'professional' panel members," says Thelin. "What we're aiming to do is to get even representation. The system is geared so every person in the UK has the same chance of being selected on to the panel, obviously depending on where we have a demographic shortage to recruit for. This happens as a process, and is what defines the system. So no, we don't respond to individual requests for people to come onto the panel."
So once you've achieved the exalted position of being selected, what happens next? Does it take up much of your time? "The aim of the BARB system is for a panel member's involvement to not be an onerous one," says Thelin. "It's fairly simple for them to do. Monitoring what their equipment is doing is an automatic process, once the meter has been wired up. The only requirement is for us to know when they are in front of the TV, which is a [simple] button-press. This isn't very difficult for people to do, so the panel member's task is reasonably straight forward."
In terms of the equipment, a small black box sits in the corner of the room and collects information about the programme and channel the panel member is viewing. Each night between 2am and 6am the data processing centre automatically downloads the data from every panel home (a process known as 'polling'). This procedure creates the daily, live 'overnight' data you see reported in the media news. Additional data on video playback is measured if it takes place within 7 days of the original broadcast. This viewing (known as 'timeshift viewing') is then added to the live data to produce the final data, which is available 8 days after the original transmission date.
Thelin says there are four main factors that BARB is considering in terms of the way television viewing will develop: time shift consumption; transportable viewing opportunities - where viewers can take a bit of content and move it about from different pieces of equipment; on-demand content - available through a whole host of services; and other new routes of distribution. Thelin says that all this points to one thing: "Though they all inter-relate, they are part of the increase in viewer control over what content is consumed. It's going to be about when and where."
More channels and more platforms means more data. So will it be harder in the future for the industry to digest the relevant information it needs? Are we going to need something stiffer than a cup of coffee to help us read the overnights in the morning? "People work with the data in very different ways depending on their function within an organisation, or the purpose of their analysis," says Thelin. "What BARB actually does is make its data available at a 'building block' level, which allows analytical systems to work with it to produce bespoke analysis that people can define for themselves. Clearly, the ability to summarise data has always been important to us, and is part of the BARB service. As the industry changes and develops, the ability for people to look at the data in new ways is important."
To keep track of ratings throughout the week, head to Digital Spy's Ratings Roundups .