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The Big Brother Popularity Conspiracy

by Trevor Ward
9 June 2010 15 Comments

Big Brother 11 is set to be the most depressing yet but what's truly sickening Trevor Ward is that the supposed high ratings it gets are actually a lie...

Big Brother is watching you... but nobody's watching it.

The well-rehearsed defence of any TV channel controller when faced with criticism of one of their programmes is usually along the lines of: but it gets good ratings.

Ah yes, the so-called “ratings”, those mysterious but oft-quoted numeric formulas that are used to justify a wide range of crimes against humanity, ranging from the ubiquity of Adrian Chiles and Amanda Holden to the perennial re-commissioning of that rancid vomit stain on the bus shelter of life, Big Brother, and its spawn of parasitic spin-offs.

If I were to believe these “ratings”, I would lose the will to live.  If I really thought that more than 10 million of my fellow citizens – living in a civilised country rich with artistic and literary heritage and bristling with multi-media attractions – had nothing better to do with their lives on a balmy June night than sit down for two and a half hours in front of their HD-ready plasma TV screens to watch Piers Morgan pontificating about a pre-pubescent acrobatic troupe on Britain’s Got Talent, I would do a Derrick Bird.

But I don’t.  Because I know that the system which measures these “ratings” is as flawed as Five’s belief that Ian Wright is an accomplished, articulate TV presenter.

The “ratings” emanate from an organisation called the Broadcasters’ Audience Research Board (BARB). This supplies data about “the public’s” viewing habits to programme-makers, broadcasters, the media, market researchers and, crucially, advertisers. These all pay annual subscription fees ranging from £10,000 to more than £250,000, depending on what type of organisation they are and how much access to the data they want. That top end figure is for mainstream broadcasters and is for each channel that they want monitored.

It’s fair to say that the average subscriptions paid by the big broadcasters could probably finance a decent six-part, well-written contemporary drama series. Or 8,000 episodes of anything with Justin Lee Collins.

Allow me to share a few facts with you which broadcasters and advertisers alike would probably prefer to remain buried on the official BARB website.  These “ratings” – eagerly lapped up by advertisers, tabloids, commissioning editors and Tessa Daley’s mum – bear as much relation to reality as Simon Cowell does to the adjectives “charismatic” and “tall”.  Here’s why:

There are approximately 27 million TV-viewing households in the UK. Even more if you count the increasing numbers who refuse to register their TV ownership by buying a TV licence. So how many of those households, do you think, are actually monitored by BARB? The answer is 5,100. That’s FIVE THOUSAND. Not five million. Not even five hundred thousand.  Just five thousand.

In other words, BARB’s “ratings” are extrapolated from a sample that is less than 0.01 per cent of the total potential audience.  That’s ludicrously tiny.   How can that possibly accurately reflect the viewing habits of an entire nation?  It’s a bit like me writing an analysis of the Israeli-Arab conflict based on a chat with the bloke who works at the local kebab shop.  And charging my readers several hundred thousand quid for the information.

Even Nivea used a sample of 11,505 for their latest advertising campaign for their “Protect & Bronze” sun lotion.

So how does BARB get its information from these 5,100 households, and how accurate is it? For the amount of money it charges its subscribers, you’d think it could afford to have a white-coated research scientist living permanently in a purpose-built bungalow annexe at each of those 5,100 addresses.

Especially as it claims on its website to be non profit-making. (I wanted to ask someone from BARB if, in view of the huge subscriptions it charges, that could really be true, but my requests for an interview were repeatedly declined)

Instead of a clipboard-wielding scientist, BARB supplies each household with a meter connected to the TV. Each member of the household has to remember to press their “allocated button” on a handset whenever they switch on the TV. The device will then record every detail of their channel-hopping. The device – which used to be known as a “peoplemeter” – is able to transmit all the information it records directly back to BARB HQ between 2 am and 6 am every day.

Can anyone spot one minor flaw in this system? Yes, that’s right – BARB’s hi-tech measuring device doesn’t differentiate between when you switch on the TV because it’s showing something you really, really want to watch – such as The Wire or The Sopranos, for example – and when you switch it on just out of habit, to provide some background noise while you do the ironing or take a dump.

In fact, here is BARB’s official definition of what counts as someone actually “viewing” an episode of Richard Hammond’s Big Erections:

….they register their presence when in a room with a television set switched on.”

So there you have it – nothing about actually sitting down and watching the programme.  All they have to do is register their presence. And a “viewer”, by the way, is defined by BARB as any family member or guest “aged four and over.” Brilliant.  Absolutely no chance of tainted viewing figures there then.

So how many of those households, do you think, are actually monitored by BARB? The answer is 5,100. That’s FIVE THOUSAND. Not five million. Not even five hundred thousand.  Just five thousand.

Here’s another thing.  TV types wet themselves with excitement if their one-off BBC3 documentary featuring Chantelle Houghton investigating the Taliban gets “good ratings”.  And yet if the show is a one-off, surely the ratings are no indication of programme quality, merely a reflection of how successful the channel’s advance publicity was?  Likewise with the ratings for the first episode of a new series.  All they can possibly be is a reflection of how good the trailer was.  But this kind of logic is never allowed to permeate the average channel controller’s smug, self-serving universe.

I’ve got a much better, fool-proof system, based on using a sample of my friends, family and anyone I happen to bump into at the bus stop on the way to the shops.  If any broadcaster or programme-maker wants to subscribe to the SabotageTimesTM system for £100 a month, I will give them an accurate indicator of what people aged between eight – my nephew – and eighty – my dad – are watching. It’s no less scientific than BARB’s methods, but a damn sight cheaper. For free, I’ll let you know that my mum – 75 and awaiting a hip replacement – thinks Trevor McDonald has the sincerity of a snake oil salesman and that Jonathan Ross is as funny as watching concrete set.

All I ask in return is that they use the money they save to go out and make something decent for us all to watch instead of Davina “Shouty” McCall and a house full of wannabe WAGS and Heat-seeking imbeciles….

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image descriptionCOMMENTS

I feel like a mug 11:04 pm, 9-Jun-2010

I thought ratings came from an, er, 'official body', y'know, like Ofcom or something. Thank you for the info, I just need to find 5,101 people who watch telly (Guernos Estate in Wales will do)'monitor' their viewing habits/set up a Facebook group, and offer channels a 10% reduction on BARB's fees. Lucrative.

Dean Cavanagh 11:57 pm, 9-Jun-2010

Great article, have known this for a long time but am slowly losing the will to live when I watch UK TV anyway. How about an article on the spine donors running UK TV? Partridge had them pegged years ago.

Russ Litten 11:23 am, 10-Jun-2010

Excellent eye opener. I used to work in commercial radio and the RAJAR results were even dodgier - they'd give a few people a diary and ask them to fill them in whenever they listened to the radio. Most people would just do it the night before they handed them in.

Mark Thorpe 6:41 pm, 10-Jun-2010

I will certainly be paasing this on to as many people as possible this is a real eye opener basically i get as many people pass through the websites i write for as they base the viewing figures on in a day crazy

Boyd Hilton 10:38 pm, 13-Jun-2010

What an odd piece. BARB's sample of over 5000 viewers is of course perfectly valid. Most opinion polls designed to reflect the views of the British public have a sample of around 1000. I guess you'd say that was "ludicrously tiny" but of course those polls are invariably accurate. As for trying to ascertain the difference between viewers who deliberately choose to watch a programme with rapt attention and those who casually have the TV on in the background - well there is the Audience Appreciation index to take that into account. This reflects how much viewers actively liked a programme. Anyway, I doubt advertisers are too worried if some people are doing their ironing whilst their ads come on. They get access to millions of viewers. That's why they advertise. Your point about ratings not being valid for one-off shows is even more bizarre. The ratings are divided into 15-min chunks. BARB knows how many people start watching a show and how many are still watching at the end. Surely if they're all still watching at the end, that means the show was successful and not just its marketing campaign. Of course BARB also now gets to use digital viewing boxes to help with the accuracy of its figures, which now include same-day time-shifting. It's actually a pretty sophisticated, statistically entirely valid system. Yes, 12 million people really did watch Britain's Got Talent. Sorry it doesn't tally with your agenda. Finally, the ad industry, the TV industry and the media as a whole all happily trust the BARB stats and millions are invested as a result. Do you think they're all stupid? Maybe some of them are, but they probably know how to spell Tess Daly.

Trevor Ward 6:50 am, 14-Jun-2010

Boyd, of course you have to defend BARB and Tess Daly, otherwise the magazine you work for - Heat - wouldn't have a circulation. And by the way, the Audience Appreciation Index is a totally separate system to BARB and may even be more accurate. Sorry if I offended you and your readership with my comment about "Heat-seeking imbeciles".... Hope you enjoy my piece about ITV being King of the Cock-Ups.

Paul Bloomfield 8:04 am, 14-Jun-2010

Surely Mr Murdoch himself could give people a better idea of what's being watched through one of his many generic satelite receiver boxes. If they were to offer 10,000 customers a reduced rate as long as they had a tamper proof memory bank fitted to their receiver i'm sure Martin lewis would have thousands of money hungry fans clambering to get themselves one! Allowing babestation to rocket up the ratings wars!

Boyd Hilton 8:36 am, 14-Jun-2010

Nice try but how about playing the ball rather than the man, Trevor? I take your failure to engage with the substance of my argument as tacit acceptance that you're wrong. As for heat not having a circulation without BARB figures - bollocks! And I wasn't offended by anything in your piece even though the reference to a recent mass murderer was tiresomely provocative and unnecessary. Cheers ps: yes just read your thing about ITV. You seem obsessed with heat and Justin Lee Collins. As for your rabid hatred of TV - not been commissioned recently?

Trevor Ward 9:05 am, 14-Jun-2010

Boyd, I do hate TV, I admit it, it's fucking wall-to-wall shite. If it wasn't for Sky Movies and Sports, plus the occasional HBO masterpiece, I'd take up knitting. And yes, having worked in TV production, I'm even more prejudiced than the average viewer, as I've had the misfortune to have seen TV presenters, producers and commissioning editors in full HD as it were, and they are - with very few exceptions - morally repugnant and creatively defunct. So while you may well not agree with my OPINION, I maintain that my FACTS are accurate. Can't I have a slot in your mag as Mr. Angry?

Boyd Hilton 9:27 am, 14-Jun-2010

Sorry Trevor, TV's great. The world needs less anger, not more.

The Axe 1:08 pm, 14-Jun-2010

Fight! Ok maybe not. Heated Discussion. No. Different POV!!!!!! Not the same is it. After school everyone down the field to see a Heated Discussion.

An ordinary viewer... 4:16 pm, 14-Jun-2010

Sorry Boyd - as ordinary viewer and not someone working in the medium, UK TV is not great - most of it is the usual churn of C list, personality-free celebrities and the same old programme formats. So thank you to Trevor Ward for giving the facts about just how dodgy the ratings system is. And Boyd, anger is justified when it uncovers the truth!

MmmMudhuts 6:09 pm, 14-Jun-2010

I'm leaning towards Boyd's original point before we got into the is TV shit or not debate. Whilst BARB uses a sampling base of 5,000 this does not make it statistically invalid. As Boyd says you can get a research done that gives fairly accurate representative views on samples of 1000 and less sometimes. Yes BARB is flawed and always has been but we marketing and media buying folk accept this as various tests of its margin of error have been done over the years using things such as historical digibox data which corroborate broadly the BARB figures. As for Big Brother, I think it's pap but ask around and people do watch it, if they didn't Boyd wouldn't fill his magazine with its cretinous housemates as his weekly circulations would tell the story of their popularity. Now there's another measurement discussion to be had.

Nonidiot 2:06 pm, 8-Aug-2011

1.Why is the article called the 'Big Brother Popularity Conspiracy'? If you think that BARB is flawed, surely the popularity of ANY programme as ascertained by ratings is a 'conspiracy', including The Wire and The Sopranos. Singling out Big Brother highlights the facile and agenda-driven nature of your argument. You think Big Brother is shit. Fine; argue that – don’t spuriously try to connect an entirely separate debate about methodology in data collection as some kind of ‘evidence’. 2.Can you try and define “watching television” in an anymore comprehensive way than “….they register their presence when in a room with a television set switched on.” Without fitting the brain of each person in the 5,000 sample with brain activity monitoring devices to tell how much attention they are paying; how can we ever make the distinction between ‘proper’ viewing and non-‘proper’ viewing? Surely it’s better to count ALL kinds of viewing than discount some based on spurious and highly subjective bias (what you are advocating). 3.BARB isn’t flawless, very little data collection techniques are. The BARB systems is quantative and not qualitative. It is concerned with STATISTICAL information; the quality of content is entirely subjective and has no relevance to statistical information. What you’re suggesting it throwing out an entirely fair and unbiased ratings system in favour of wildly subjective, groundless, elitist, unrepresentative guesswork. 4.You write like a rambling idiot.

Jack Knight 10:38 am, 15-Aug-2011

Wow....what a terrible article written clearly by a child with no knowledge or understanding of statistics or confidence intervals. I'm not surpised anyone at BARB was willing to speak to you, they probably only speak to intelligent people who understand the industry, clearly you do not and think that just because 5,100 homes is 'smaller' than the 26 million, it is not accurate....heavens forbid, the entire market research industry is based around sample survey designs and is worth billions of pounds....do you think it's all an entire con act? Opinion polls are based on a mere 1,000 respondents usually and incredibly accurate. Your lack of knowledge around the complex sample design, methodology, rim weighting process of the BARB system shows you up to be quite a naive individual with no real interest in actually reporting or commenting on the truth (other than an e-mail to BARB, did you actually pick up a book or read up on BARB, unlikely!). Your laugh a minute alternative using your friends (hilarious by the way, where do you come up with this stuff), is flawed by the simple fact its not representative, not weighted by multiple demographics and not based around a random sample design. But hey, lets not let FACTs and intelligence get in the way.

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