BARC plays a valuable role. Preserve it
The Broadcast Audience Research Council (BARC) continues to face criticism from multiple quarters, with powerful voices even going so far as to ask the broadcast industry to jettison it, once and for all. Is this reasonable?
Ratings, of BARC type, are indispensable for the broadcast industry. Linear television is not ready for 100% customisation. Streaming services do it at great cost. Linear TV is, and will, for the foreseeable future, remain, the optimum pipe for live content. Public Service Broadcasting is often funded by the exchequer and must deliver the widest audience at the lowest cost. Given its focus on public service over profits, it hews toward linear, unencrypted, non-addressed, free-to-air (FTA) delivery.
Conditionally accessed (CAS) content creates a trackable record of household consumption, since the distribution platform is theoretically able to see and store tune-in information, but unencrypted content does not. If an FTA unencrypted channel sells advertising, how will it price inventory? Most licensed channels are FTA, and only a handful of distribution platforms actually have return paths. What universally acceptable basis can they offer to transact advertising?
This leads us to a deeper set of issues. First, a bit of history. Television audience measurement started with the BBC in the mid-1930s. As a broadcaster funded by the United Kingdom exchequer, BBC was accountable to the House of Commons. When questions were asked about the value of the TV channel to a television-owning Londoner, the Beeb established a research department that would conduct day-after-recall sampling to assess programme relevance. This question continues to bedevil broadcasters, and tune-in data, even where available, sheds no light on it.
Second, advertising-funded platforms, whether Facebook or Google, have encyclopedic detail on registered users and their consumption behaviours. They produce little content — so they are best served when they carry the widest possible range from third parties to fulfil expectations of consumers on the farthest end of the “long tail”. While platforms know exactly who is consuming what, the actual content owners can only access aggregates and averages, but are content to leave the matter there as long as their advertising revenue is juicy enough. It is disingenuous to compare audience measurement for TV broadcasters with that for these platforms.
It is a separate matter that advertisers are making their displeasure about the “census” measurements offered by these mega-platforms quite clear. Marc Pritchard, P&G’s global marketing czar, has been particularly scathing, making it clear that the numbers these platforms claim are massively inflated. A Netflix show, The Social Dilemma, has shone an unflattering light on the invasion of privacy by digital platforms. Growing awareness of privacy concerns and regulatory interventions now place limits on the collection, storage and use of user data on such platforms. The laissez-faire they enjoyed is over for the moment.
Third, the term “census” connotes comprehensive, unlike “sample” which suggests only partial. As a result, it seems self-evident that census data is superior to sample data for its sheer scale. Return Path Data (RPD) is supposed to be “census” data in contrast to panel data, which BARC uses. But there is a fatal flaw in this contention. RPD is proprietary to distribution platform owners, and they would probably breach privacy statutes if they shared household demographics with a measurement body. In any case, they would treat their subscriber details as commercially invaluable, and be loathe to part with them. Samples are also better placed to accurately mirror the underlying population by reflecting its composition along multiple axes.
And finally, assume, counterfactually, that reliable RPD was available from all commercial distribution platforms. You would still need an agnostic party to compile and weight it. And we would leave out DD-Direct, mortally impairing the measurement.
BARC has its problems. But the solution is unlikely to lie in denouncing it. It is still the best bet for hundreds of broadcasters to remain viable, and hundreds of millions of viewers to enjoy the fruits of their exertion.
Paritosh Joshi is a media professional with a keen interest in audience measurement
The views expressed are personal