TV: Why the Future is Hybrid

Every age thinks it's the modern age. This one really is.

Tom Stoppard wrote this line back in 1997, a time when Tony Blair was promising that things could only get better and Apple was rolling out what little red carpet it could then afford for the return of Steve Jobs.

Stoppard's quote captures the excitement that each generation instinctively feels about the innovation it's unleashing on an unsuspecting world. Yet it also hints at a self-delusion that each generation has to indulge in. Perhaps what we're creating isn't that new after all? Perhaps we're just finding neater ways of helping people do what they've always done?

When we talk about our generation, digital technology is at the heart of innovation. And yet, Moore's Law doesn't apply to human beings. Some people have the capacity to keep up with the pace of technological change, although the vast majority don't. More often than not, our first instinct on getting hold of a new gadget is to work out how it helps us do what we've always done, only better.

The television industry is prolific at putting new technologies in the hands of viewers. Devices that make it easier to watch what you want, when you want. Technology that brings greater programming choice and sharper definition to images.

But just because it's possible to do something with a new device, doesn't mean people will. Even if it seems the obvious thing to do.

Here are a couple of numbers that bring to life the paradox described above:

12 years ago, Sky+ was launched to widespread commentary that this sounded the death-knell for live TV viewing. Spin forward to 2012 and we see that...89.7% of all viewing still takes place at the time of broadcast. As easy as it is to time-shift viewing, people still largely want to be in the moment when choosing what to watch. There are natural pockets of difference, but the reality is that the needs of television viewers are still largely being met by the broadcast schedule.

Netflix's high-profile investment in House of Cards is a more recent catalyst for breathless commentary about the death of linear television. Let's assume, somewhat generously, that it attracted the same audience as Homeland, another high-quality US drama. And let's assume that this audience viewed all thirteen episodes across one weekend. This would have accounted for 0.85% of all television viewing in that weekend.

So as the next wave of entrants to the television marketplace attracts natural attention, we see the shifting of tectonic plates rather than a seismic shift. That said, BARB needs to pay attention to these vibrations with its accustomed rigour.

For our industry, the paradox can be summarised in a simple question. How do you measure analogue beings in a digital world? The less simple answer is that we need hybrid measurement. So how do we get there?

Step one is to continue making the most of the BARB panel. Our electronic tracking of minute-byminute viewing for over 12,000 people provides a wealth of insight into television viewing. We might not provide real-time data, but daily reporting means there is plenty that is current in our currency.

Enhancements to the panel are needed to open the way to a hybrid future. Some of these are well established, while others are now being actioned. Since late last year, all new BARB panel homes have had software installed that allows us to know what is being watched on desktop and laptop computers. Crucially, this software also tells us who is watching. Over 10% of the panel is now equipped with a Web-TV meter in addition to TV set meters.

Early analysis shows that viewing through computers is less likely to be a group experience. The average number of viewers for each session is 1.1, rather than the 1.4 we are used to seeing for an average viewing session on a TV set. It's also clear that viewing through computers is a small part of overall viewing. (1% at most on current measures).

We also need to know who is watching on tablets and smartphones and a solution is now close to hand. Subject to successful field testing, this could be installed on all iOS and Android devices in BARB panel homes by the end of the year.

Additionally, we have plans to extend our panel to include homes that don't have televisions but do have a broadband connection. This is a small but growing proportion of the country.

Collecting evidence from our representative panel of actual viewing behaviour on computer devices is a critical input for a hybrid future. The other vital input is the metadata tags that broadcasters add to their VoD and live-streaming content. Capturing these tags will give BARB a census-level database that reports the actual number of devices which are accessing content delivered throughout internet protocols.

Inevitably it will take time to deliver the hybrid future that is at the heart of our strategy. As a first step, BARB and Kantar Media are entering a new partnership to produce the TV Player Report, which will do two things:

Firstly, it will be a central source of information for the industry to assess the popularity of programmes being delivered through the apps (well known on tablets, smartphones and smart TVs).

Secondly, it will deliver a robust database that can dovetail with the BARB panel in due course.

As part of this new service, the five major UK broadcasters that underwrite the BARB service are committing to embedding Kantar Media tags in their output. Conversations are starting with other BARB subscribers to get them on board too.

So BARB has an exciting hybrid future ahead of it, although that's not all.

Among many other development projects, we're gearing up to help our customers identify the headline impact of Sky's Adsmart service. Plus, having first delivered evidence in 1991 of catch-up viewing within a week of a programme's original broadcast, we're now extending this capability to 28 days.

BARB has been a critical part of the television industry's value chain for over thirty years. In that time we've successfully managed a whole host of technological and structural changes to ensure that we continue to deliver the gold standard that our business expects.

What we are announcing now is further evidence of our commitment to delivering a world class, complete audience measurement service. The UK's vibrant and thriving television industry deserves nothing less.

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