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Goodnight to Overnights: How can networks judge success in the face of changing viewing habits?

This month we have seen two fascinating insights into the way broadcast measurement is adjusting to the digital world. On Tuesday, the BBC Trust published its request for comments about proposals to close BBC3 as a broadcast channel and instead turn it into an online service. Initial reaction to this came in the form of a proposal from two major independent producers to buy BBC3 – they were quickly told it was not for sale. But a close look at the audience research findings released by the BBC show that attitudes towards the proposal are mixed.

In the research, a ‘BBC3 proposal’ was described alongside alternatives. The BBC3 proposal is “No broadcast channel – an online-only service, on iPlayer and online through its website and on social networks. Still targeted at 16-34s, with the same brand, tone and quality. Its programme budget would halve. Around 16 hours’ worth of BBC3 video would be released and added online each week or shown on BBC1 or BBC1. In addition the online offering would include short videos, interactive content and other innovative forms of content likely to appeal to an audience aged 16-34.”

The research comments dryly – ‘this was the least popular of the four proposals” – just 14 percent expressed a broadly favourable response personally. Calculating this in terms of future viewing “29% of respondents thought they would use the revised service at least monthly. This compares to BBC3’s current monthly reach of 64% and represents a decline of over 50%.”

What viewers prefer is not necessarily more stuff for younger viewers online only, but rather more flexibility in their TV viewing options.

Against that has to be taken into account the savings the BBC will make from closing BBC3, and the additional services it is proposing – of which the most popular in the research findings is a BBC1+1 service.

So here’s the first conundrum – while younger viewers are likely to be more digitally native and found online, the idea of taking a broadcast channel online only produces a response that is ambivalent at best. The second conundrum is that what viewers prefer is not necessarily more stuff for younger viewers online only, but rather more flexibility in their TV viewing options.

If you follow that logic through, it suggests that focussing on the most popular output – BBC1 – will be the option that appeals to most licence fee payers. The question that begs is – would that apply to other BBC digital channels, such as BBC4?

I said there were two fascinating insights into broadcast thinking this month, and the second is about social media.

Here’s Leslie Moonves, president and CEO of CBS, speaking at the recent Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas: “Overnight ratings are virtually useless right now. The idea of success or failure is very different. Social networking becomes a metric that is very, very important.”

Anyone thinking about programme, content and channel performance this year will need to have this comment in mind and take a more holistic approach to ‘the idea of success or failure’. A single measurement of how a programme performed is not going to be sufficient to make a complete appraisal of a programme’s value – not least because programmes generate different forms of social media interest.

Social media buzz around programmes reflects the character of the programme itself. For instance, take two programmes with a social media buzz around them in January – the start of the second series of ITV’s hit Broadchurch drama and the return of Celebrity Big Brother on Channel 5. For Broadchurch the key issue is anticipation – given the interest in the previous performance of the first series, looking forward to the new series and then reflecting on its appeal compared with that series is a way social media can be utilised.

A single measurement of how a programme performed is not going to be sufficient to make a complete appraisal of a programme’s value.

But when all’s said and done, reaction to the drama can be measured in the way the audience figures turned out for this new, much anticipated series – the first episode started at 6.4m/26% share, it dropped by the third episode to 4.6m/19% share. On ITV+1 viewing was 298,000/2% share and for the third programme it was 507,000/3% share. It’s clear from the reaction that there was a degree of disappointment.

In contrast Celebrity Big Brother returned to Channel 5 on 7th January with 3m/15% share, and has settled to an average of 2.3m/11% share. Unlike the concentrated impact that Broadchurch’s intense three episodes storytelling aims for, CBB seeks continuous attention across all platforms – measuring a single episode is less informative, it is the entirety of broadcast, online and social media over the run of the show that matters.

So bringing together these two trends – the changing perception of overnights ratings and social media metrics and the broadcast vs online debate – I think it’s fair to say we are in for a year of digital innovation in 2015. If you would like to comment on the BBC3 proposals, the deadline is 17th February and more information can be found here: BBC3 Consultation

Philip Reevell writes about broadcasting and media matters.

Philip Reevell