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 eachchannel 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….