The official source of television viewing figures in the United Kingdom, BARB, will include reporting of online viewing for major broadcasters by the end of the year. Broadcasters have committed to embed metadata tags to enable consolidated reporting of online viewing to television player services such as the BBC iPlayer, ITV Player, 4oD, Demand 5 and Sky Go.

The BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5, BSkyB and the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising jointly own BARB, the Broadcasters’ Audience Research Board, which commissions research companies to collect data to represent the viewing behaviour of the 26 million television households in the United Kingdom.

BARB figures are used to report viewing figures, now including time-shifted playback, but to date this has not included ‘catch-up’ viewing on demand.

The TV Player Report is due to be launched by the end of 2013 and is the first step towards an integrated broadcast and online measurement system.

It comes over five years after the launch of the BBC iPlayer and similar online services from other British broadcasters.

A field test of an app over the summer should lead to the roll-out of a system for measuring the viewing of BARB panellists on tablets and smartphones by the end of the year. This will supplement online viewing that is already being tracked in 700 panel homes.

“Our initial focus is on reporting the extent to which IP content is being downloaded or streamed,” said Justin Sampson, the chief executive of BARB. “This is a significant step forward in our ambition to deliver cross-platform measurement of content. The next step is to invite research companies to tender for the task of integrating this data with the viewing figures that our users are already familiar with.”

Tom George, the chair of the media futures group at the IPA, said: “It shows BARB to be at the forefront of gold standard television viewing measurement, regardless of which distribution platform viewers are choosing. We believe it will strengthen BARB’s position as the only complete source of how TV is watched in the UK.”

Richard Brooke of consumer goods company Unilever, who is a member of the BARB board, added: “This is a positive step forward towards measurement of this tremendously complex area. We are optimistic that blending census data with more comprehensive behaviour tracking in the BARB panel is the right way forward.”

BARB has appointed Kantar Media to collect census data for television viewing through all computer devices, including tablets. Computer devices are not otherwise defined in the announcement, so it is not currently clear to whether this includes smart televisions, set-top boxes or games consoles.

Kantar recently reported that nearly a quarter of the population in Britain now has access to four types of screen: television, computer, tablet and smartphone. That compares to just 11% only six months previously. A quarter of tablet owners reported watching on demand television programmes or movies on their device in the previous month.

The irony is that online services can inherently provide highly detailed analysis of usage, without the need for panels or statistical sampling and extrapolation. However, broadcasters only reveal headline figures for total requests.

So far there has been no independent measurement to provide a common currency by which online audiences can be measured and advertising can be traded.

That assumes that broadcasters will continue to sell advertising in the same way that they have done for nearly 60 years, alongside traditional television spots.

Nevertheless, the emergence of a standardised measurement system, open to anyone who pays to subscribe to the data, is a step forward, albeit one that is well overdue.

No doubt, once ‘catch up’ viewing is included in consolidated audience figures it will be possible to show that people are watching more television than ever, although audience fragmentation means that fewer people are generally sitting down to watch the same thing at the same time.