What the Paul Potts moment tells us about TV ratings

I wrote a piece this week for the BBC’s staff newspaper; Ariel. (you can see how it looks here) It lurks in bins near the lifts of every BBC building and is usually pored over by diary columnists looking to quote someone from the letters page being rude about Mark Thompson’s salary. Unfortunately there isn’t much controversy in these 950 words which i reproduce in full here. Its a quick canter through why tv and radio ratings are on their way out to be complemented or replaced by something that reflects social currency in some way. Or other. By the way, the bit at the end was shamelessly inspired by Tara Hunt’s upcoming book so don’t think thats my idea. The shameless gushing over Paul Potts is all mine though. Still makes me sniff. Every time. I think its the tearful pensioners.

What the Paul Potts moment tells us about TV Ratings

Last March a slightly disshevelled 37 year old salesman from Carphone Warehouse arrived for an audition at Cardiff’s Millennium Centre.  He couldn’t have realised that he was about to set the bar for what online video success looked like in the UK. As he belted out Nessum Dorma, brought a cheering audience to their feet,  and the tears started to stream down Amanda Holden’s cheeks, he’d performed what was to be briefly the most viewed and shared 4 minutes 10 seconds of British TV online.

Of course this was the amateur opera singer; Paul Potts taking the first series of ITV’s  Britain by Talent by storm. When his clip was actually broadcast on a Monday night a few months later, we learnt, thanks to what is a rather simple set top box located in a few thousand households, that he’d attracted a healthy 6.9m viewers to ITV1.

What happened next, however,  took ITV completely by surprise. This rather briliant piece of video, I defy you to not have something in your eye, was ripped and posted online by a 43 year old reality fan called Brendan. Ok so far, so obvious.  British TV had been doing the rounds on torrent sites for half a decade by then and  it was made considerably easier following the launch of YouTube in 2005. Showcasing video and audio on a site that “just worked” for any user and crucially made it easy to share and embed away from the site meant that the number of times the clip was requested was starting to rival and then easily overtake the broadcast numbers. Numbers, ravaged from two decades of multi channel, have now settled down to a mere 6-9m for prime time hits in both the UK and US.

Yet Nessum Dorma became the first UKTV clip to take off and it quickly accumulated tens of millions of views. Its total, a year later, has now settled to an astonishing 50m requests.  For UK broadcasters, including the BBC, we finally had our first Morecambe and Wise Xmas show moment. An all time hit against which to benchmark future online video distribution success. Yet this was merely the very simple metric of logging a users request to watch a piece of media.

At sites such as Flickr where users upload 5m photos and video a day, the metrics go far beyond ” views.” Activities of logged in users are religiously tracked and crunched to establish more than just raw consumption. My rather odd photo, taken 2 years ago,  of 12 shelves of old soul records has been favourited, linked to by users that aren’t my friends, has several praiseworthy comments and is now according to Flickr my most “interesting” picture.

We often forget that Google owes its still rather healthy profit line to updating a concept that was first established in the 17th century; peer review and citation. Academia relied then and still does on a technique that encouraged the cross referencing of someone else’s work and the iteration of work by others to advance ideas. Inspired by this in 1995, Google co-founders; Sergei Brin and Larry Page devised a patent for Page Rank; an algorithm that analysed and measured how users link to each other online and established the authority of those who do so. Although consistently refined since, this is still why Google works so well and has led to other innovations such as its contextual advertising software; Ad Sense which measures every single click on highly targeted text ads and earns Google a revenue stream that threatens the health of all UK commercial media.

Yet the measurement of TV ratings  remains powered by a technology unchanged since the 70s.  Without the shared consensus and absolute trust in figures that are still, nearly 30 years since the first VCR, called “overnights” then scheduling, talent contracts, advertising and the health of the BBC or ITV would have no basis.  It comes as an even greater shock that the “technology” underpinning the entire radio industry and the data that supports the selling of air time throughout the whole of UK commercial radio relies on a team of reps that hand out pens and diaries to thousands of households and expects them to fill out paper diaries that log their listening in 15 minute segments. And they report not daily, not monthly but every quarter. No really.

So what the Paul Potts clip but more importantly the well documented relationships between users and objects on Flickr or Delicious, or Last FM or eBay  illustrate is that the magic that sustains the belief in RAJAR and BARB is starting to slowly fade. The benchmarks for failure and success around online video, shared radio, news stories, photos, blog posts, music and any other conceivable object which might have a social currency are now reasonably well entrenched and understood compared to broadcast tv and radio. However they are never going to turn up in a single spreadsheet every morning. And we shouldn’t expect them too.It’s still very much a confused picture.

Thankfully new services coming from (BBC) FM&T are now starting to emerge that are in, Tom Coates’s (ex BBC and now social software developer at Yahoo!) brilliant concept; “Designing for a web of data” rather than the series of monolithic un- linked to, un- measured pages that have characterised bbc.co.uk in its first decade. So we  now have the basis of an infrastructure which potentially captures the social engagement around the news stories we write, the TV we make, and the radio we produce. The next challenge is to develop techniques to allow licence fee payers to freely share, and trade this attention data to whoever they wish. Perhaps you might argue that this is using multiplatform “measurement” to entrench the BBC in everyone’s daily online identity.

The cult Canadian science fiction author; Cory Doctorow, in his first novel, writes of a world where an economy’s necessities are all free but value is expressed through a currency called erm, a “Whuffie”  based on a person’s reputation that is viewable to anyone.  A slightly worrying prospect but it does highlight quite a frightful concept. The BBC has spent 70 years worrying and fretting about how its activities impacted on ratings, share and reach. In a world of Interestingness, Whuffie and Page Rank, where value has to be earnt socially, then measurement has changed the game.  How prepared is the BBC for a time when its status and perhaps permission to exist is now expressed via the reputation online of not just its stories and programmes but also its presenters, journalists and staff ?

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