A beginner's guide to measuring TV audiences

A beginner's guide to measuring TV audiences

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Tuesday, 19th August 2014

Ever wondered how viewing figures for your favourite TV shows are gathered? Well, wonder no more. 

Who is in charge of measuring TV audiences?

The Broadcasters' Audience Research Board, more commonly known as BARB, is responsible for providing the official viewing figures for UK television audiences. BARB is jointly owned by the BBC, ITV, C4, C5, BSkyB and the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising (IPA). The figures represent the viewing habits of the nation's 26 million TV-owning households.

Why are the figures important?

There is £7bn invested each year in the production and distribution of programmes and adverts, so it is no wonder that those in the industry are keen to understand the figures. Broadcasters use the figures to judge how successful their programming schedules have been: they want to know how many people watched Strictly Come Dancing last night, and if more or fewer people tuned in the previous week when it was on earlier in the evening. Advertisers are interested in the figures because they show how much exposure their television advertising campaigns have had. They also want to know the ages and genders of TV audiences to know when would be best to show an advert for a new perfume and when would be best to show an advert for male hair dye.

So, how does BARB do it?

At the moment BARB uses data from a specially selected panel of around 5,100 homes totalling about 12,000 people. Each panel home has a small box attached to each television in the house, which notes what programme is being watched. Each person who is in the room when the TV is on is supposed to register their presence with a special remote control. The people at BARB then scale-up the data to give viewing figures for the UK as a whole. 

How do they make sure the data is representative?

With quite a small original data set, BARB is careful to make sure that the people on the panel accurately represent the UK. Research agency Ipsos MORI is responsible for conducting a survey which measures household characteristics and another agency, RSMB, design a household sample which encompasses the range of demographic and TV reception variations that are found across the country and in different ITV and BBC regions. Finally, Kantar Media, install the measuring devices into the selected homes.

People from panel homes do not get paid for participating but receive gift vouchers and the chance to enter competitions and win prizes.  

What about catch-up services and the programmes I watch on my smart phone or tablet?

As viewers watch programmes on an increasingly varied range of devices, BARB is having to revolutionise their method of measuring audiences. At present all catch up viewing that is done on a traditional television set, through services like Sky+, are recorded automatically by BARB and included in what they call their time-shift viewing figures, which are recorded throughout the seven days after the original broadcast. These are then added to the live viewing figures to make an overall, consolidated viewing figure for the programme. Homes which have joined the BARB panel recently also have software installed on desktop and laptop computers which records what programmes are watched on those devices. 

At present BARB does not measure content that is watched on smart phones or tablets, but they are currently working on a hybrid measurement system which will do just that.

tvA panel of over 5,000 homes help gather viewership figures (Credit: Flickr)

How will the future hybrid measurement system work?

BARB’s hybrid measurement system has been named Project Dovetail because it aims to join two different measurement components together. From 2016, BARB will ensure that tags are embedded into all content which is delivered through the internet. This means that each time a programme or advert is sent to a device, like a smart phone or tablet, the tags tell the people at BARB that the piece of content has been watched. This will mean that BARB will be able to accurately know exactly how many times something has been watched through the internet, rather than having to estimate based on the panel. However, BARB still intends to keep the panel element when measuring online views. People on the panel will be asked to download an app to their smartphone or tablet which will prompt them to sign-in each time they watch a programme. This means that BARB will be able to tell if a programme was watched by 35-year old man, his teenage daughter or indeed his young son. 


By Jemma Buckley


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Ever wondered how viewing figures for your favourite TV shows are gathered? Well, wonder no more.