A new system for measuring the use of interactive television with bar codes embedded in the picture is being tested by BARB, the organisation which measures television viewing in the UK. Sky is also rolling out its own measurement system that will provide even more accurate viewing data.

Until recently, broadcasters and advertisers have had limited information about how many people actually use interactive television services.

For the last twenty-five years the television industry in the UK has relied on viewing estimates from a panel of homes produced by BARB, the Broadcasters’ Audience Research Board, a non-profit organisation funded by broadcasters and advertisers.

Data is collected by AGB Nielsen Media Research from a representative panel of just over 5,000 homes using meters attached to their televisions. This system can only record which channel is being watched and has been generally unable to detect the use of interactive applications.

The BARB sample size is also limited in the number of homes that represent each digital television platform, so it becomes less statistically robust for niche audiences or demographic groups.

BARB code
The new system, originally developed by the BBC, is designed to measure the display of an interactive application using a unique barcode embedded in the last two lines of the picture. In theory, this could allow individual screens within an interactive service to be uniquely identified as they are viewed in panel homes.

The barcode is composed in different shades of grey and will be outside the visible picture area on many displays. Bjarne Thelin, the chief executive of BARB, says he is “confident that visibility isn’t a real issue”.

The system has already been tested over the air on digital terrestrial television and is in the process of being tested on a limited number of meters installed in homes.

The use of a visible bar code to detect an interactive application is ironically an anachronistic analogue solution to a digital problem. It still does not identify interactive behaviour within the application beyond any changes to the barcode.

Incredibly, the issue of measurement was not addressed at the outset in the development of digital and interactive services. Inserting the barcode will require changes to processes and applications that impose an additional burden on the industry.

The alternative of using special set-top boxes to record actual usage is more complex, particularly in a market with multiple platforms and viewing devices.

Sky View
Satellite broadcaster BSkyB has been developing its own system, capable of recording actual second-by-second viewing behaviour as detected and reported by set-top boxes in a much larger panel of 20,000 Sky homes.

“We are not in competition with BARB,” said Rob Leach, who is head of interactive services at BSkyB. “Sky requires this information for many business reasons. BARB is still the measurement tool for TV advertising.”

Nevertheless, the Sky View panel, which is currently being tested, will provide a powerful and precise planning and research tool that can be directly correlated with subscriber information and even real-world purchasing behaviour.

A subset of 5,000 of the Sky View homes will also be members of the TNS Worldpanel from market research company Taylor Nelson Sofres, which measures actual purchases of consumer goods.

Initiatives such as this will provide real accountability for advertisers and sponsors, and offer a significant advantage to platform operators.

In the future, broadband services will be able to offer absolute measurement of actual user behaviour, as on the web. However, the proliferation of different platforms will make it increasingly difficult to achieve a consolidated view of overall audience behaviour.

There may still be a role for television ratings for mass audiences, but they will be seen as an increasingly blunt tool for understanding the behaviour of individual users.

Ultimately the industry will determine whether it looks to organisations such as BARB for information about the use of interactive services.

“We’re working with BARB on the system and we’ll see how the trials work out,” Rob Leach of Sky told informitv.

“If it works it is something that we are very interested in, for both programming and interactive advertising,” added Peter Birch, head of interactive sales at ITV, the leading commercial broadcaster in the UK.