This week, Steadfast TV’s Paul Crompton, delves into the black hole of audience ratings.
You’ll have seen those city workers on the train each morning with their blue suits and pink newspapers. They scour the FT to see if they’ve still got an office to go to. Has the gross domestic product of Portugal gone for another siesta? Has Sterling been sushi’d by the Yen? It’s the same for us TV lot, we’re obsessed with overnight figures too. The main difference is that when city workers screw up, the world caves in. When we screw up… it’s worse… AA Gill slags us off.
It’s said that television is democratic. The viewer votes every night with the remote control, singley affecting our careers as they flit from one channel to another. If your latest programme rates well it puts a spring in your step and gives you a strong bargaining tool for the next commission. The overnight ratings are TV currency.
If I’ve had a programme on the night before and the ratings (for some unfathomable reason) aren’t what I’d hoped, a series of questions rush through my mind. Was it the schedule? Live football always messes things up. Can I use the old classic excuse “tough competition”? And, just occasionally, I cast a cursory eye on the ratings system. Surely it’s only natural to question it, especially when you think something hasn’t performed as well as it deserved. The more you dig the more questions you find. Who are these secretive ratings people? And how do they know who is watching what, and when?
With some help from the BARB website, I discovered that they have enlisted 5,100 homes spread evenly around Britain. They’re selected from an interview process and the homes are changed regularly. I’ve never been asked, but then I’ve never been selected for jury service either. Each BARB home is fitted with a box wired to the DVD player, freeview unit, Sky HD and anything else capable of sending pictures and sound through the ‘box in the corner’. (Although today it’s more likely to be ‘the slab of plasma over the fireplace’).
In the UK, there are 26 million homes with a TV, which means that every single ‘BARB home’ represents around 5,000 viewers. So let’s say a single ‘BARB home’ chooses to do something ludicrous like go for a family outing, or perhaps the house blows a fuse. The next day there will be a loss of 5,000 viewers. For peak time terrestrials, that figure isn’t worth bothering about but for daytime programmes or mid-sized digital channels that would be a sizeable loss.
Nevertheless they’re saved by the ‘percentage share’ statistic, which measures the percent of people who are actually watching television at any one time. So far, so logical.
But some programmes, according to the overnights, register no viewers at all. There are whole channels in the nether regions of the EPG that get zero. You know the sort: cake decorating channels, specialist horsey stuff and the occasional psychic. Although if anyone can tell you who’s really watching, surely they can? Nevertheless, someone out there is slogging their guts out to make these channels work. There must be someone tuning in, if only the presenter’s immediate family. And if there’s live football on Sky they can always record it, and watch their loved ones later.
Ratings systems around the world vary only a little. In Ireland, they have similar same sort of electronic kit but there are just 600 homes measured each day. So, if just a handful goes on holiday, the viewing figures are sent into freefall, even for a popular peak-time programme.
In America, they have five times the number of measuring boxes than the UK but as America is about five times the size, the margin of error is roughly the same. Except, the Americans have something else. In their quest for accuracy, the country that brought us NASA, Microsoft and the iPad has a second ratings system that uses nothing more than pen and paper.
1.6 millions hand-written “diaries” are collected from American homes recording their TV viewing habits which are processed four times a year. They call it “The Sweeps” and this old school method carries more weight with American broadcasters than the electronic overnights.
So if ratings are TV currency then the Sweeps are weighed in gold. American broadcasters make huge financial decisions based on the information in the Sweeps. If we had this here it would be a dramatic change in the nature of commissioning but BARB have told me they’re not planning on introducing this system in the UK. So for now, we’re stuck with the overnights. As one senior TV Exec once told me, they might not be perfect, but they’re the only currency we have.
So I’m on the train sandwiched between two blue suits and I see on my Blackberry that the ratings for my latest project are down on the previous week. Damn! I decide to blame the live football, it was a big match that went into extra time and overlapped the start. And I should know, because I was watching the football too.
Paul Crompton is Executive Producer at Steadfast TV