Audience Research 

25 September 2017

From the BBC Handbook for 1961

If the BBC were to wait to be told of the things it needs to know about listeners and viewers there would be many serious gaps in its information. These have to be filled by systematic investigation and this is the business of the Audience Research Department.

Much of its work is geared to current broadcast output. This must be followed up and measured in two ways: both the size of audiences and their opinions must be ascertained as accurately as possible. Different methods are used to achieve these two objectives.

Audience size is arrived at by means of the survey of listening and viewing. This works on the principle that the listening and viewing of the whole population can be estimated with reasonable accuracy if this information is obtained from representative samples. Thus, if 10 per cent of such a sample is found to have viewed programme X, then this programme’s audience must have been round about 10 per cent of the population.

Every day BBC interviewers question between 3,000 and 4,000 people scattered all over the United Kingdom. The object is always to discover which programmes, if any, the sample listened to or viewed the previous day. The interview is concerned with all the sound services and with television — ITV as well as BBC — for it is of obvious interest to the Corporation to know how those who have a choice divide their viewing time.

Different people form the sample every day so that in the course of a year well over a million members of the public are contacted in this work. Over a thousand people are employed as interviewers on an intermittent part-time basis.

Opera World Première ‘Tobias and the Angel’ by Sir Arthur Bliss with libretto by Christopher Hassall – a television opera commissioned by the BBC. Elaine Malbin is seen in the leading soprano role of Sara

The end-product of the survey is called the daily audience barometer and is the BBC’s equivalent of the box office. It lists every programme and against each are figures indicating nationally and region by region the proportions found to have listened or viewed as the case may be. Its value lies not merely in the information it gives about individual broadcasts but also in providing a basis for the study of audience trends. A daily coloured Chart is also prepared illustrating the size of audiences to all television programmes, BBC and ITV. It shows them both as proportions of the total adult population and as proportions of the viewing public who can receive the two services.

The opinions of audiences are gathered through panels of ordinary listeners and viewers. There is a listening panel for each region, a special third programme listening panel, and a viewing panel; altogether their membership totals about 6,000. Panel members are recruited through public invitation or by personal approach; the aim is to ensure that they are respectively representative.

The panel member regularly receives questionnaires about forthcoming broadcasts. He is not asked to vary his normal listening or viewing habits—indeed he is particularly requested not to do so, for the object of the exercise is always to find out what people think of the programmes they choose in the ordinary way. The questionnaires, which vary in form, seek frank expressions of opinion. One important feature of them is that the panel member is always asked to ‘sum up his reactions’ on a five-point scale ranging from A+, which indicates the highest degree of enjoyment, to G—, which indicates strong dislike.

‘Face to Face’, the programme of incisive and controversial interview, brings internationally famous figures to the BBC television screen. Here John Freeman interviews Augustus John, the doyen of British artists

Analysis of the completed questionnaires leads to the production of programme reports which try to give a fair and balanced picture of the opinions expressed, bringing out the majority view and pointing out what the various minorities felt. As a broad guide to the programmes’ reception, appreciation or reaction indices are calculated from the panel members’ markings of the five-point scale.

Side by side with these continuous studies the department is constantly engaged on a variety of ad hoc investigations. These may involve anything from discovering public opinion on a single point—such as a proposed change in the timing of a broadcast — to an exhaustive study of the impact of one type of output, such as news. Local studies may have to be made, as when, for example, there is need for information about the use made of special VHF transmissions for limited areas. While some of these inquiries are concerned with particular sections of the public, like the agricultural population or housewives in TV homes, others concern the public as a whole. An example of the latter kind was published during the year under the title The Public and the Programmes (BBC. 8s. 6d.).

Audience Research may also be called upon to forearm the producer of, say, a documentary programme with information about the public’s existing stock of knowledge of his subject, or to measure the extent to which his efforts to widen it have been successful. Naturally the research methods used vary with the problem to be solved. Sometimes it is necessary to interview a sample of the population at length in their own homes. Sometimes a ‘postal questionnaire’ is adequate. Sometimes samples of the public are invited to meet together for questions and discussion. But in every case the object is the same—to assemble a body of reliable information as a basis for evaluation or, if necessary, decision-making.

Tony Hancock in his series ‘Hancock’s Half Hour’

Television Audiences

By the end of March 1960 more than three out of every four people in the United Kingdom could see television in their own homes. The growth of what may be called the ‘television public’ over the last few years is shown below:

The Television Public (aged 16 and over)
January-March Approx. numbers % of adult pop.
1960 29,100,000 77
1959 26,000,000 69
1958 22,500,000 59
1957 19,300,000 51
1956 15,700,000 41

As will be seen, the ‘television public’ has nearly doubled since 1956.

It is against this background that the statistics of actual viewing must be set. One yardstick is the number of people who view any television (BBC and/or ITV) in the course of the typical day. Excluding children, this exceeded twenty-four millions in January-March 1960, so that it could be said that by then television was being seen each day by two out of every three adults in the United Kingdom.

A not inconsiderable minority of these people (nearly a million) did not themselves own television receivers but were viewing as ‘guests’ in pubs, clubs, or the homes of their friends. Of the ‘television public’ which, as was said above, consisted of over twenty-nine million adults, twenty-three and a half million saw some television on the average day.

This figure is worth closer examination. In the first place it means that on any given day in the first quarter of 1960 no less than four out of every five adults in TV homes could be expected to make some use of their television sets—the vast majority of them in the evening. (Even in mid-summer the proportion of viewers who use their sets each day does not fall far short of this.)

Charlie Drake being interrogated by the ‘Roundheads’

It is perhaps surprising that in this respect viewers who can receive only one television service differ little from those who can receive two, for around four out of five of each group view on the average winter day. (Once people can receive two services they do not in fact view very much more than they did when they could view only one.)

The same yardstick can throw light on the way in which those adults whose sets give them a choice of programme actually exercise that choice. Again taking the typical day in January-March 1960, 22 per cent of those who had a choice (and who viewed at all) confined their day’s viewing to BBC-TV programmes, 34 per cent viewed nothing but ITV programmes, while 44 per cent saw one or more programmes on each service. (It is important to remember that these figures relate to the ‘average day’. In the course of the average week the proportion of viewers who saw programmes on both services would inevitably be much higher.)

In total, BBC-TV was viewed in January-March 1960 by an average of over seventeen million adults a day—some two million more than in the same quarter of 1959. But in both years the proportion of the television public who viewed one or more BBC-TV programmes each day was much the same — just under 60 per cent.

The audiences for individual programmes depend on a variety of factors, of which the nature of the programme itself is only one. Other important factors are the hour of broadcasting and the nature of the ‘competing5 programme which is available. Some examples from the general run of well-known series in January-March 1960 are given below:

Early evening Time Day Average audience (aged 16 and over)
Dixon of Dock Green 6.30 p.m. Saturday 10,000,000
Tonight 6.45 p.m. Monday-Friday 7,500,000
Meeting Point 7.00 p.m. Sunday 1,600,000
Laramie 7.00 p.m. Saturday 9,600,000
What’s my Line? 7.30 p.m. Sunday 8,900,000
This is Your Life 7.30 p.m. Monday 9,500,000
Wells Fargo 7.30 p.m. Wednesday 7,700,000
A Life of Bliss 7.30 p.m. Thursday 7,400,000
The Sunday night play 8.00 p.m. 6,500,000
Panorama 8.00 or 8.30 p.m. Monday 6,800,000
Sportsview 8.00 or 8.30 p.m. Wednesday 8,000,000
Spy-catcher 8.00 p.m. Thursday 10,700,000
Emma 8.00 p.m. Friday 5,100,000
Saturday light entertainment 8.00 p.m. 8,400,000
Hancock’s Half Hour 8.30 p.m. Friday 10,600,000
Saturday film or play 8.40 p.m. 7,500,000
Music for You 9.00 p.m. Wednesday 5,000,000
Amateur Boxing 9.00 p.m. Thursday 8,500,000
The Third Man 9.00 p.m. Friday 7,000,000
Monitor 9.30 p.m. Sunday 3,000,000
Late evening
Television Concert Hall 10.00 p.m. Tuesday 1,700,000
Picture Parade 10.00 p.m. Tuesday 4,000,000
The Brains Trust 10.15 p.m. Thursday 3,150,000
Who Goes Home? 10.15 p.m. Friday 2,850,000
Small World 10.30 p.m. Saturday 2,300,000
Week-end afternoons
Sunday feature film 2.30 p.m. 5,700,000
Grandstand 2.00 to 5.00 p.m. Saturday 4,500,000

Among the largest BBC-TV audiences recorded during the year ending 31 March 1960 were those for the Cup Final (eleven million adults), for the General Election results (at 10.15 p.m. on Polling Day thirteen million), for the Wolves v. Red Star match for the European Cup (ten million) and programmes on the afternoon of Christmas Day (eleven-and-a-half to twelve-and-a-half million).

Sound Radio Audiences

Virtually the whole population possesses facilities for listening to sound broadcasting (either a sound receiver or a relay service), for it is rare for the ‘wireless set’ to be thrown out when the television set comes in. While it is true that viewers listen to sound broadcasting very little in the evening, they continue to do so at other times, particularly in the early morning and throughout the hours of daylight at week-ends. The very general use made of sound broadcasting is illustrated by the fact that in January-March 1960 well over half the adult population listened at some time in the course of the typical day, the vast majority of these people being owners of television sets.

From the ‘Grandstand’ Studio at Lime Grove the Duke of Edinburgh, on BBC Television, inaugurated, on behalf of the National Playing Fields Association, playing fields in five different places, at Dundee, Rhayader, Liverpool, Hayes and Harlington, and Leicester

Sound broadcasting’s evening audiences have borne the main brunt of the competition of television. They are no longer the largest of the day. Now the time of maximum listening on weekdays is between 7.00 and 9.00 a.m. News bulletin audiences provide a simple illustration of this. Audiences for the bulletins at 7.00 and 8.00 in the morning are three times as great as those of the bulletins at 9.00 or 10.30 in the evening.

Evening audiences for sound broadcasting are drawn largely from the ‘sound only’ public, i.e. the people who do not possess television sets. Their numbers, of course, have diminished as the ‘television public’ has grown. But they are still a substantial proportion of the population; in January-March 1960 they accounted for 21 per cent of the adult population (or about 7,900,000 persons.) Their appetite for evening sound broadcasting shows no sign of diminishing, the average amount of evening listening among them remaining at about seven and three-quarter hours per week (out of a possible thirty-five).

Children’s Viewing and Listening

The measurement of the viewing and listening of children of 5-14 was begun on a regular daily basis towards the end of 1959. One of the facts which at once became apparent was the very high incidence of viewing, not only between 5.00 and 6.00 p.m. when by long tradition programmes expressly for children are broadcast, but also in the first half of the evening (from 6.00 to 9.00 p.m.). In April 1960, for example, the proportion of children viewing was found to be as follows:

Proportion of children viewing television
5-7 year olds 8-11 year olds 12-14 year olds 5-14 year olds
Between % % % %
5.00 and 6.00 p.m. 46 47 38 44
6.00 and 9.00 p.m. 32 45 45 41

It is normal for not far short of half the children in the United Kingdom to be viewing television between 5.00 and 6.00 p.m., and almost as high a proportion (including one-third of 5-7-year-olds) viewing between 6.00 and 9.00 p.m. By no means all the children who view are doing so in their own homes. It is significant that many children whose families do not have television sets are regular viewers in the homes of their friends.

Children’s viewing varies greatly from programme to programme. There is plenty of evidence that most of them exercise discrimination, selecting the programmes of their choice or switching off the television set if there is nothing they fancy. Naturally enough the types of programme they tend to view in greatest numbers are those which are most ‘exciting’ and easily comprehensible, such as Westerns. They tend to apply the same criteria to programmes after 6.00 p.m. (though then their freedom of choice is often restricted by the demands of adults). Some examples of evening programmes which attract large numbers of children are the Phil Silvers Show, Juke Box Jury, and Bronco (on BBC-TV), and Sunday Night at the Palladium, Wagon Train, and Emergency Ward 10 (on ITV).

Since children show so strong a partiality for television, it is inevitable that the number of them who listen to sound broadcasting, at times when viewing is possible, is relatively small. Thus when between 5.00 and 6.00 p.m. three-and-a-half million 5-14-year-olds are viewing, there are normally only about 150,000 listening to sound broadcasting. But this does not mean that sound broadcasting has ceased to command the attention of children in general. ‘Children’s Favourites’, for example, broadcast in the Light Programme at 9.00 on Saturday morning, is heard each week by about two-and-a-half million of them, while the audiences for such broadcasts as ‘Family Favourites’, the ‘Billy Cotton Band Show’, or ‘Life with the Lyons’ on Sunday afternoon quite often include as many as two million children.

Hans and Lotte Hass, Armand and Michaela Denis, Peter Scott – some of the personalities who make Natural History come alive on the television screen. The West Region of the BBC, with a unit based in Bristol, is mainly responsible for the Natural History output

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