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Raymond Snoddy 

It's high time SVOD reached out to BARB

It's high time SVOD reached out to BARB

Ray Snoddy urges subscription on demand services to come in from the cold and help support the need for reliable viewing data

The world of the California high-tech companies is never short of big numbers and equally large controversies.

The value of the big five shot up by no less than $750 billion since the U.S Presidential election, presumably due to a belief that President Biden will be less likely to take tough regulatory action against them than the capricious Trump.

Or is it that the markets appreciate the fact that a Republican-controlled Senate will block any effective action?

If you want controversy, look no further than Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg’s appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee this week.

Zuckerberg admitted that former Trump adviser, Steve Bannon’s suggestion that the top U.S infectious diseases specialist Dr Anthony Fauci and the FBI director, Christopher Wray should be beheaded, was not a serious enough breach of Facebook rules for Bannon to be permanently suspended.

The Bannon posting was seen by more than 200,000 people before Facebook took it down.

Back in the UK, there is a small but growing issue – the lack of transparency in the viewing figures from the likes of Amazon, YouTube. Disney + and Netflix, which are not included in the official BARB statistics.

David Graham, chief executive of Attentional, an audience research agency, has raised the issue at an industry level and warned of what he calls “ the black hole in British TV data.”

Perhaps nearly half of all viewing is now “invisible” and unable to enter the calculations of advertisers, programme developers and even those who finance production.

Unless Ofcom and the DCMS take action, at the heart of one of the UK’s fastest growing sectors – the creative industries - we have entered parallel universes where the numbers do not speak to each other.

The trend towards streaming and viewing to non-traditional broadcasting was already there for all to see, but Graham points out that it accelerated considerably during the initial Covid lockdown and may be growing further as we speak. The need for action is now obvious.

“The story of the past few months has been stark but simple. Children and young adult audiences have been spending more time outside the domestic system than inside it. Covid-19 has accelerated the trend. If there is a retreat from that trend, it will only be modest,” Graham predicts.

Attentional, using modelling techniques taken from many sources, estimates that the average time watching ‘Unmatched’ or ‘Unidentified’ viewing for everyone over four years of age, between 6am and midnight will go up to one hour 39 minutes over the course of 2021.

This compares with one hour and seven minutes in the last “normal” month, January 2020, an increase of 48%.

Of course, these numbers may be wrong because no-one really knows, precisely because the new players have refused to sign up to BARB for reasons we can only guess at.

Perhaps, as international operators they do not want to tangle with a patchwork of individual national measurement agencies, or more simply that they regard their numbers as their own commercial property.

Even in the UK, there may be television industry sensitivities. You may know a fundamental shift is happening and you suspect it may be bad, but maybe there may be less than total excitement about having the numbers spelled out in black and white.

If so, this is a mistake. The better the knowledge the surer the grasp on reality, however uncomfortable.

Ofcom has gone some way to filling in the “black hole” with its Media Nations report.

But with reviews under way on the future of public service broadcasting in both Ofcom and the Government, it is vital that policy is, as they say, evidence-based, and that the evidence is as accurate as possible.

If national public service broadcasters are – as seems likely- under increasing threat, the policy makers need to know that.

It could mean, for example, that the BBC needs help and may even have a slightly better chance of receiving it in the post-Cummings era.

Not all the signs are promising however, such as the unbalanced nature of the panel chosen to advise the Government on public service broadcasting complete with known opponents of the BBC, and for goodness sake, a senior Facebook executive.

There is at least some good news on the viewing data front.

It is believed that Justin Sampson, chief executive of BARB, has decided that the organisation will push ahead with gathering viewing figures on the new players, which have refused to join.

It will cost millions without the financial support of the multi-billionaire SVOD operators, but it is a brave decision that deserves support. Over time, it will make the black hole less dark.

Obviously producing reliable viewing data is an expensive business with its 12,000 panel selected to resemble the population as a whole and using devices that pick-up unique audio signatures.

In fact, as part of any future compact with the high-tech giants a small sub-clause could be included saying they should join the UK’s all industry TV research body.

Even if that does not happen they should be persuaded on a voluntary basis to join BARB and support the organisation financially. In monetary terms, it would be the smallest pinprick but could symbolically send a message that they do intend to be good citizens.

As David Graham notes, the UK head of YouTube has acknowledged that his platform is now part of “the public sphere” and is in reality the third largest channel in the UK.

They should indeed come in from the cold - even if it’s only out of self-interest.

And while you are here, the SVOD services also have to be encouraged to do something to strengthen their rating and classification systems.

The public service broadcasters have restrictions and time thresholds surrounding their content, while the streamers suffer from few if any such restrictions.

The reality is that comparatively young children can easily find a way to get access to more adult material round the clock.

That’s a story for another day so in the meantime, praise for BARB.

The more you think about these interlocking, complex issues, the more obvious the need for a comprehensive review rather than misguided attempts to beat up on the BBC, with the help of a panel skewed heavily to the Right.

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