The demand is for the introduction of "people meters" - set-top boxes that automatically measure viewing.
Watching TV that watches you
What was the most watched television show in Saudi Arabia during Ramadan? That depends on which research firm's data you look at - and that is helping to fuel a crescendo of calls from all corners of the industry for reforms to the way television viewership is measured in the region. Loudest among them is the demand for the introduction of "people meters" - set-top boxes that automatically measure viewing, combined with a viewer-identifying remote - to supplement the current system of asking people to remember what they watched the previous day.
"You can't do it this way," said Pierre Daher, the head of the broadcast conglomerate LBC-Rotana. "At best, these ratings reflect less than one third of the viewers." Mr Daher represents one of several major broadcasters, media buyers and research firms engaged in a recent movement to breathe life into the stalled effort to bring people meters to the Saudi, UAE and Kuwaiti markets - some of the last places on earth still unmeasured by the modem-enabled boxes.
Although calls for the introduction of people meters go back to the 1980s, the latest effort, a joint venture between broadcasters, advertisers and the Arab Media Group-dubbed Project Illumination, was started in 2006. It planned to deliver the boxes - and their daily doses of data - by the end of last year, but somewhere along the line the discussions broke down. For the moment, the old system remains in place - and so do the complaints. In this system, most ratings are delivered by two research companies: Ipsos, with a branch based in Lebanon, and the Pan Arab Research Center (PARC), based in Dubai. Each uses its own version of computer assisted telephone interviewing (CATI), in which the interviewer follows a script provided by a software application. Telephone interviews have the advantage of being able to ask individuals about viewing done beyond the confines of his own living room, but the system relies, at its core, on human memory.
"The quality of the data that you get is just completely erratic," said Karim Sarkis, the executive director of broadcast for Abu Dhabi Media Company (ADMC), which owns Abu Dhabi TV, among other stations, and publishes The National. "Take a 30-day series. You'd expect after the first four or five days for it to level off - but the first day, 20 per cent of the audience is under 20. The next day, none is."
In addition, the monthly rather than daily reporting of the data means neither broadcasters nor advertisers can make changes to the products they air based on the previous day's performance, as they do in much of the world. This makes the job of Rayan Hajjar, who handles advertising for Proctor and Gamble at Starcom Worldwide in Dubai, more difficult than his peers elsewhere. "Generally speaking, if we talk about research in the region, there is no clear or sufficient information, but we have to work with what we have," he said. "We don't have people meters to get day-to-day data, to make sure we are achieving what we want to achieve on a daily basis. We are working with what we have, whether it's accurate or not."
The biggest complaint about the CATI method from broadcasters is that the viewership numbers it returns are inaccurately low, and thus are contributing to artificially low advertising rates, and ultimately a lower production quality. In the UAE domestic market last year, for example, advertising spending on local television was dwarfed by that spent on local newspapers - US$59 million (Dh216m) compared to $738m, according to the PARC. Although these figures are somewhat skewed by the dominance of Pan-Arab Media, which pulled in $1.4 billion in ad spending throughout the region, they still point to a weakness in television's profitability in the region that broadcasters feel acutely.
"Today, anyone can claim whatever data in the market. This is in the absence of an agreed methodology and independent audit body," said Raja Halabi, the executive director (commercial) at ADMC. "TV owners will not accept any more less than people meters. We deserve to have a measurement tool that protects our investments." People meters were introduced to the US market in 1987. They consist of a box in the home that records all audiovisual media going through the television and sends it back to a central computer. The box is complemented by a remote control that viewers must use to identify who is watching what, and when. Participating households are rewarded with points that can be used to claim prizes from a catalogue.
Because the system requires compliance from the viewer, it receives its share of criticism in the markets where it operates. The new devices caused something of an uproar in the US in 1990, when their data showed TV viewership numbers dropping generally, particularly among the three main broadcasters, and rising among cable stations. Because of the imperfections of people meters, many markets continue to supplement their data with CATI surveys that cover viewing habits outside of the home. But today, much of the talk in the wider industry is about portable people meters to address this problem.
Some of the complaints of Middle East advertisers and broadcasters can be addressed without people meters, said Elie Khouri, the chief executive of the Omnicom Media Group and a board member of the local chapter of the International Advertising Association (IAA). Although the IAA supported people meters, it had been working on a separate initiative to establish a "single currency" between the region's two dominant research firms, Ipsos and PARC, he said.
"We want transparency," Mr Khouri said. "Every time you have two currencies, there are lots of questions that say, this one is higher, this one is lower. It doesn't help in an industry where we are already suffering from a lack of data, or incomplete data." The IAA has hired Trust, a media consultancy run by Harout Krikorian in Dubai Media City, to establish the best practice for CATI in the region and get all firms to sign on to it. Mr Khouri said testing for the new practices began just before Ramadan, and the results would be shared with the industry "very soon". An essential part of this currency is the selection of an independent auditor for both firms' methodologies, he added.
Right now, PARC submits to daily audits by Reach Mass, a Lebanon-based market research firm. "I tell my staff we are living in a glass bottle," said Sami Raffoul, the general manager of PARC. "This is what clients demand in the modern age." Ipsos does not hire an outside auditing firm, said Elie Aoun, the chief operating officer of Ipsos MENA. "We have asked the market many times to bring some independent auditor to do the auditing, but no one has taken the initiative," he said. "You cannot audit yourself at the end."
Ipsos is likely to be the company that brings people meters to the Gulf region, if they are to come at all. The stalled people meter effort, spearheaded by the Arab Business Group, was reactivated a month ago, Mr Khouri said. Much had already been accomplished in this effort before the meetings trailed off. Three research agencies were chosen last year in competitive bidding to carry out the people meter project, beginning in Saudi Arabia, the region's biggest market. AGB Nielsen Media Research and Ipsos would work together to carry out the actual people metering, while PARC would carry out the survey to establish the proper sampling groups.
PARC has already carried out its work, but the industry is now waiting for Ipsos to receive a licence from the Saudi government to install the devices in people's homes. This has long been a sticking point. "Doing TV meters in Saudi is very complex," Mr Khouri said. "You are entering homes and you are talking about culture." MBC, the Saudi-based satellite broadcaster whose programmes dominate the current ratings landscape, is "advocating the evolution toward more accurate currency, which is commonly known as the people meter technology," said Mazin Hayek, the group director of marketing, PR and commercial at MBC in Dubai. The station had agreed to contribute part of the more than $6m per year it would take to implement the project in Saudi, he said.
But he cautioned against looking at people meters as a panacea. "Is the installation of people meters going to necessarily revolutionise the ad market in the Arab world? There are chances that it would help, but it may not revolutionise the ad volume, and the ad spend per capita." He pointed to the example of Lebanon, the only country in the region besides Turkey to have the technology, where advertising spending has decreased in recent years.
"Advertising at the end of the day is a mirror of society," he said. "Levels of ad spending usually follow the level of economic activity. So if you go through a boom and you don't have people meters, ad spend will go up. And if you are going through a recession and you do have people metres, ad spending will go down." email@example.com