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Between a rating and a hard place

All of a sudden, the issue of television ratings, how they are measured and which ones are the most important to the licence-fee funded BBC has started to grab the headlines again.

The Corporation has always struggled to balance distinctive programming that commercial channels can't produce because it won't attract enough advertising revenue, and broader interest content that ensures that everyone who contributes to the BBC's running costs feels that they are getting value from it. For as long as the BBC continues to be funded through a universal licence fee, that dichotomy will continue to exist.

Ben Stephenson, BBC controller of drama commissioning, recently spoke about what a 'successful' drama means for the Corporation at the event in which he announced he was axing some long-running drama series to free up funds for new productions. As reported by the Guardian:

Stephenson said there had to be a way in future to evaluate the success of BBC drama that did not rely on the size of audiences. "Success at the BBC is much more complex," he added.

Centre-right thinktank Policy Exchange recently released a report, Changing the Channel, which accused the BBC of being more interested in ratings than the quality of programmes, adding:

It should instead be an organisation that seeks to maximise quality and distinctiveness, subject to a certain realistic minimum requirement for reach and share of overall consumption.

From my perspective, 'reach' -- the overall proportion of the population who watch or listen to a service, or range of services, over a given period of time -- has been touted by the BBC for years as being more important than individual ratings. That doesn't mean that individual programmes which do particularly well shouldn't be lauded, but there always seems to be someone who'll regard a BBC ratings success as a sign that it's doing something wrong.

Indeed, as soon as ITV1 has a resurgence -- such as when The X Factor was receiving phenomenal ratings in the run up to Christmas -- it's a lot easier to frame the story as "BBC1 loses share" rather than "ITV1 more popular than usual".

Jana Bennett, Director of BBC Vision, recently stuck her head above the parapet to suggest that TV overnight ratings, BARB's initial estimates as to how many people watched each programme, are losing significance as PVRs such as Sky+ and on-demand services such as the BBC's iPlayer gain an ever stronger foothold in the public's means of television consumption.

As platforms for watching television diversify, actually calculating what a channel's audience share or reach actually is becomes progressively harder. And it will also provide more avenues for both the BBC to defend its decisions, and its critics to lambast it. Oftentimes, they'll use the same statistics as each other.

There is another metric that the BBC uses, but does not make public: the Appreciation Index (AI), a measure of how much people liked a programme that they watched. In the new edition of the Radio Times, editor Ben Preston suggests that it is Mad Men's extremely high AI figure that has encouraged BBC4 to continue airing the series, which starts its third series next Wednesday (January 27), despite the relatively low ratings the import attracts, and encouraged him to place its stars on the magazine's front cover.

If the BBC did release its AI data to the public at large, it would possibly shine a light on both the series which get recommissioned to much scratching of heads and those which the licence-fee paying public didn't like.

As the broadcaster approaches life under a possible Conservative government, it is going to have to defend its corner much more cleverly than it has done up to now. Wouldn't releasing the data that helps underpin its decisions help it in that aim?

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