Whether it's Stranger Things on Netflix, news clips on Facebook, or EastEnders on BBC One, in terms of what to watch, we've never had it so good. Technology has given us the freedom and choice to watch pretty much whatever we want, wherever we want. With this broadening choice of both content and medium, the markers of success have become somewhat distorted. Unsubstantiated, self-promotional claims are being made on how successful shows are, producing an unruly way of comparing like for like. Whilst behaviours of audiences have changed at a significant pace, the industry measure for viewing data has not.
First set up 36 years ago, BARB has been the TV industry measurement standard, initially reporting on overnight viewing figures for three channels. Since then, it has struggled to keep up with a rapidly changing market with the increasing importance of time-shifted, on demand, catch-up viewing and the popularity of watching on mobile devices. First muted in 2014, BARB's admirable intention to launch Project Dovetail which looks to measure online TV viewing across devices has yet to come in to fruition.
In order to fill the void some broadcasters are now defining their own measurement standards, using BARB data as a basis, but adding in bits and pieces of their own figures when reporting viewing figures. It's argued that these independently created methodologies will provide greater clarity to viewing data, giving a clearer picture of what and how viewers are watching their content. However obvious problems arise when individual companies begin to report their own figures in their own framework. It's possible we'll end up in a Wild West of numbers, left comparing apples to oranges.
While the more "traditional" broadcasters are at least looking at ways of re-imagining consumption, our SVOD friends have never released viewing figures and show no sign of changing that any time soon. Whilst there isn't a dependent need from advertisers here, the television and creative industry would benefit from knowing viewers' appetite for certain shows, instead of relying on media hyperbole or the fleeting popularity of a hashtag.
And what of social video? Social media platforms are offering more and more video content. While view counts are made public on platforms, does a view on Facebook mean the same as someone tuning in to watch 30 minutes of Coronation Street? On paper it seems not, but how can we quantify viewing on different platforms? Do we even need a meta comparison, or are we destined for a tailored siloed approach for each medium?
To keep content relevant and provide audiences with what they want, we need to know what they are watching and what they're not. It is critical for commercial broadcasters and content providers to be able to monetise their content, so that they can keep producing the high quality that audiences have come to expect. Andy Harries, the creator of The Crown for Netflix, claimed at the recent RTS Cambridge conference that he had not been party to viewing figures for his epic series. And while being commissioned for a Netflix production sounds like a dream - all the money you need and no meddling from the commissioner - surely once out there you want to know how it's being consumed by the public?
We've gone beyond the crossroads now, the industry needs to come together to answer the question of measurement. If we are to continue to serve viewers with the very best entertainment we need an open, reflective and truthful standard in which to report, compare and improve our offering on. And we need to share this data, along with trends and preferences more honestly and openly than ever before.