Street Cred 

1 January 2004

In the Bible, it is said that Man cannot live on bread alone, but by every word of God. Similarly, television and radio channels cannot live by ratings alone: they also require credibility. A commercial channel may argue that it needs ratings to acquire, and keep, advertisers: I would maintain that a commercial channel needs credibility as much or more than it need ratings. Why? I’ll explain.

With over 200 television channels out there, ratings are incredibly hard to come by. In addition, not every channel is available to everybody, or available on every platform as yet, and the channels that have the highest ratings are still, perhaps not surprisingly, the ones that are available on Analogue Terrestrial, which does cover almost the entire country, as opposed to the digital platforms which have yet to achieve much over half that kind of reach. Digital Terrestrial may cover 73% of the population, but only about 4 million homes have the necessary reception equipment so far. It’s a similar picture with Digital Satellite: although over 95% of the country is able to receive it, the necessary reception equipment is currently installed in only 7 million homes. All in all, around half of the country doesn’t have the necessary equipment to receive the extra channels, automatically limiting their ratings potential.

Because of the fact that ratings are going to be hard to come by for most channels, there has to be another approach that these broadcasters can take.

There is another way of measuring audience, and that is by means of the Audience Appreciation Index. This is essentially a rating from 0 to 10 which indicates just how well liked a show was by its audience. Unfortunately, compiling an Appreciation Index is a slow process – it takes up to two weeks to calculate these figures properly, whereas ratings can be calculated overnight. Indeed, just three weeks of overnight ratings figures about a show seem to be considered enough evidence to determine whether a show should be re-commissioned, cancelled with immediate effect, or just shifted off to a graveyard slot for the rest of its run. Because of this, Appreciation figures are often overlooked by the industry, and because these figures are not released to the public, there is no way for the public to know that a particular programme scored well on Appreciation, even if it didn’t score well on the normal ratings.

As a result, most channels decide to go down the route of getting safe revenue via primary channel subscriptions and not worry about either ratings or credibility. In a sense, it’s quite understandable. When you have a guaranteed revenue source, even if it is only a few million pounds worth, then getting ratings becomes less of a worry, as subscription revenue is determined only by how many people are subscribed to the channel, not how many watch it – unlike advertising revenue, which is wholly dependent on how many people watch.

However, because of this, channels should arguably use every opportunity that they can to establish, and build, their credibility with the audience. There is still large gaps in credibility between the big five terrestrials, the main multi-channels that have been available for years, and those channels that are still relatively new to television. Some channels have tried to buy credibility by using big names, or by having a big-name company back them, but this hasn’t always worked. Notable big-name casualties in this area have included Wellbeing, which was backed by Granada and Boots, and Taste CFN, backed by Carlton and Sainsbury’s.

Thus credibility, like ratings, cannot be bought: it has to be earned over time. Few things in television, apart perhaps from the departure of executives, can be done quickly, and certainly three weeks is no time at all to be deciding the fate of a show. By the same token, channels take years to bed down and settle into the public consciousness. Broadcasters should not expect a channel to acquire an audience within a year, and then close it because it’s not doing as well as they think it should – which is what happened to both Granada Talk TV and Wellbeing.

There is an old saying, ‘Rome wasn’t built in a day’, and equally, channels aren’t built in a year or two, they take a while to build an audience that believes in them and their content – in other words, to gather credibility. Broadcasting is – or at least ought to be – a long-haul business: something that broadcasters should bear in mind. Time is ultimately what will decide what channels survive and what channels do not. Ratings and revenue are obviously important, but credibility, though more difficult to establish and maintain, may be even more vital to success in the long term.

A Transdiffusion Presentation

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Liverpool, Friday 19 July 2024