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Media '86: Retro Gogglebox

24 May 2016  |  Torin Douglas 
Media '86: Retro Gogglebox

Thirty years ago this month Channel 4 was part of a fascinating and often hilarious TV viewing experiment. This is vintage Gogglebox, writes Torin Douglas

As Gogglebox continues to hold viewers enthralled and appalled, it's worth looking back 30 years to May 1986. In that month, a prototype Gogglebox was broadcast and Channel 4 first discovered that viewers were fascinated to watch other viewers watching TV.

In those days, long before Thinkbox, advertisers, agencies and airtime sales teams were even more fascinated. Suddenly they could watch what viewers did in the commercial breaks.

The programme was part of a C4 series called Open The Box and it was shown at 10pm on Monday May 19th 1986. It featured the work of Dr Peter Collett, a research psychologist at Oxford University, who devised a special TV set called a C-Box, which contained a video camera and microphone and recorded everything that happened in front of the set.

In the bottom lefthand corner of the screen, its recordings showed what was being watched (or not watched in many cases) as well as the channel number, the date and the time.

Collett was a member of Oxford's Department of Psychology and with financial backing from the Independent Broadcasting Authority he put the C-Box into the homes of 20 families for a five-month study. Each family had two adults and at least two children. 10 had a breadwinner of what researchers then called 'professional' status (such as a surgeon, a teacher and a clergyman) and 10 'non-professional' (milkman, clerk and plumber).

They all agreed to take part and were told they could withhold any tapes containing material they didn't want the researchers to see (some were perfectly happy for pictures of kissing and cuddling to be broadcast). Unlike today's Gogglebox families who are now celebrities in their own right, these ones were anonymised. But some of the results could have been shown on Gogglebox today.

We saw a woman with her two daughters watching the death of Bobby Ewing in Dallas (before it was all revealed to be a dream so he could be revived for a later series). True Dallas fans will remember that he was run over by Pam's sister. Peter Collett recalled the moment in an article for The Listener on 22 May 1986:

"The woman of the house had prepared herself with a liberal supply of tissues. When Bobby was hit by the car she clutched her throat shouting "No! Noooooo!" Then, as she watched Pam cradling the dying Bobby in her arms, she screamed at the TV: 'Get an ambulance, you stupid woman!'"

Dallas Bobby Ewing

Advertisers were more keen to see reactions to the commercials. The Media Research Group and Media Circle invited Dr Collett to give a presentation and TMD's associate research director Alan Copage wrote it up for Media World:

"I can't recall having heard so much laughter and irate argument at a serious research presentation for a long time. We saw total inattention to the screen by distraction ('screaming at the kids' syndrome), by 'viewers' reading newspapers, by 'viewers' asleep. "We saw partial attention (while getting the kids ready for bed), blocked/obstructed viewing (an iron right in the way of the viewer's line of vision) and total attention - the goggle-eyed vacant stare style of viewing.

"We also witnessed heavy criticism of a bank commercial ('it's all a rip off'); and even a man who, at the appearance of a Café Hag advertisement, asked his lady companion if she would like a cup of coffee. It was magic stuff: film of 'channel flickers' at work, 'zappers' doing their thing and so on."

It also quantified the lack of viewing, albeit in a qualitative context. I wrote in Marketing Week at the time: "According to Peter Collett, people are only in the room for about 80 per cent of the time the television is switched on. The average time they are actually looking at the screen is 65 per cent."

Dr Collett subsequently produced a 100-page report aimed at advertisers, agencies and media independents, entitled Twenty Questions about TV Ads. It was based on more than 400 hours of video material, and the responses of more than 100 individuals to 1,960 commercials.

Naturally the findings caused huge debate in TV research circles and were used to hold BARB's feet to the fire. As mentioned in an earlier column - Riot shields, ratings and the birth of the Independent - BARB had introduced peoplemeters in the UK to show what individuals, as opposed to households, were watching. And even though they couldn't tell whether people were actually paying attention, the system was a great improvement on TV research measurement in the United States, where AC Nielsen and Arbitron still used setmeters and diaries.

In May 1986, AGB Research stepped up its US challenge to Nielsen, with a blitz of publicity that won it headlines in Time, Forbes, Variety, USA Today and many other US publications. After a successful trial in Boston in 440 households, AGB was ready to go national.

"Battle of the Head Counters" was the headline in Time magazine on 26 May 1986. Forbes' headline the week before was "Anybody home out there?" as it proclaimed: "The hottest subject in TV these days isn't who's got the number one program, it's how they know it's the number one program."

"Nielsen rival to tell the 'who' of ratings" said USA Today. "Advertising agencies, who buy $8.5 billion worth of airtime on the three networks each year, aren't happy with the way A.C.Nielsen Co, the ratings giant, measures TV audiences. And starting next year there'll be an alternative - AGB's PeopleMeter."

Marketing & Media Decisions said simply: "1986: The Year of the PeopleMeter".

It was fun while it lasted, but of course it all ended in tears for AGB.

And the clue was there in that Time magazine article: "Despite the pressure from AGB, the industry betting is that Nielsen will hold onto its monopoly. Says one New York City stock analyst: 'The giant ain't dead.'"

Next month: The Peacock Report throws the cat among the pigeons: no to ads on the BBC, yes to ITV licences for competitive tender.

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