BARB, the television audience measurement organisation for the United Kingdom, has launched four-screen ratings, indicating how many people watched programmes on television sets, personal computers, tablets, and smartphones. The new numbers show an increase in viewing for some programmes, taking into account online viewing, but not as much as some might expect.

The four-screen ratings combine the nationally-representative panel of 5,300 homes across the United Kingdom, which have software meters installed that track their viewing on television sets, tablets and PCs, together with device-based data for online viewing through a broadcaster video-on-demand service.

The consolidated seven-day TV set programme rating for the most popular programme of the week commencing 10 September was episode five of the drama series Bodyguard with 12.59 million viewers, while a further 756,000 watched online. That includes 361,000 watching on computers, 311 on tablets, and 82,000 on a phone. That is a total increase in viewership of 6%.

The next most watched programme was The Great British Bake Off, with a television audience of 8.57 million, a number that rose by 3.5% to 8.87m including those viewing on other devices.

So far so good, although these two programmes were exceptional.

Four-screen viewing of top three programmes in the United Kingdom, week commencing 10 September 2018. Source: BARB

Coronation Street, the long-running drama occupying six of the top ten places, saw a more modest increase from online viewers. The Wednesday episode had a television audience of 7.23 million, and a total audience of 7.34 million, an increase of 110,000, or 1.5%. Of these 66,000 watched on a tablet and fewer than 5,000 watched on a phone.

However, the two episodes on Monday were respectively watched by only 30 and 31 viewers on a smartphone, while around 100,000 watched on either a computer or tablet.

The BARB figures currently exclude online data from the STV web player, or Sky Go web services.

Nonetheless, the four-screen numbers for the top 10 programmes of the week show an online uplift of just 2.45%.

Looking at the top 10 BBC programmes, BARB reports no online viewing for Eastenders on Monday, although the Thursday and Friday episodes had a 4.3% and 4.2% online uplift respectively. So the numbers may still not be entirely reliable. Averaged across the top 10 BBC programmes, there was a 2.75% audience increase from online viewing.

If we look at the top 10 programmes across the ITV channels, the average online uplift was 1.5%. Across the Channel 4 programmes the average was 2.1%.

That reflects the popularity of the BBC iPlayer, which is free of advertising, compared to the equivalent players from ITV and Channel 4.

The figure of 1-3% of viewing online is also consistent with our understanding from other data points, but shows that it is still a minority mode, even for the most popular programmes in the country.

While a lot of effort has been applied to capturing online viewing data and fusing this with television panel ratings, the actual volume of online viewing is relatively low compared to that for television overall.

Clearly this varies by programme. For instance, 1.70 million people watched an episode of Love Island on ITV on Sunday 15 July on television at the time of transmission. A further 1.35 million watched on television within the same day as transmission, and 0.88 million watched within a week. In addition, 387,000 watched on computers, 248,000 on tablets, and 325,000 on phones, giving an increase over the seven-day television audience of 24.4%.

Yet that is still an exception rather than the rule and it still reflects the online viewing behavior of fewer than a million viewers.

This first stage in providing multiscreen viewing figures is an important first step and illuminates the actual volume of online viewing for television programmes. As we can see, for the most popular programmes it still only represents a relatively small proportion of viewing.

It must also be remembered that the BARB online viewing figures are based on the average number of viewers over the duration of the programme, as with traditional ratings.

That is very different to the number of online ‘requests’ typically reported by broadcasters.

The BBC announced that the first episode of Bodyguard, which had a consolidated seven-day television viewing figure of 10.4 million viewers received 2.2million requests in its first seven days. That implies an audience increase of 23%. In comparable terms, however, the uplift in viewing may be significantly lower.

Bodyguard on the BBC was the biggest new drama on British television for a decade. Ironically, it was an independent production, made by World Productions, which is now owned by ITV, which has sold the programme for international distribution, and it will soon be available on Netflix.