Dirty data

For the call for greater transparency to be realised the industry needs accurate data. Unfortunately, even with Ipsos-Stat and the PARC around, much still needs to be done.

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By  Tim Addington Published  May 29, 2005

|~|Aoun,-Elie-----IPSOS-STAT_M.jpg|~|“The data we provide is continuous. Agencies can see the viewing trends, if a station is doing well or not so well. If they have a programme that is booming, you see the ratings are higher. Most of the agencies are using this data,” says Elie Aoun, managing director, Ipsos Stat.|~|Politicians around the world are often lambasted for quoting statistics ad nauseam. Whether it be on the latest crime, defence, immigration or tax figures, the old phrase of ‘lies, damn lies, and statistics’ is often peddled by a weary population tired of working out who is telling the truth, who is distorting the facts to suit their own ends, and who is telling downright lies. However, in the Middle East, a region not known for producing reams of data, there is one area where statistics are hotly debated, argued, and even abused with an intensity that would rival any polished politician. For many years, television networks, media agencies and advertisers have called into question the validity of viewing figures, how they are collected and how TV stations sell inventory based on the numbers. Research groups Ipsos-Stat and the Pan Arab Research Center (PARC), the primary sources of this data in the region, both claim the service they provide is the most accurate, and the methods for collecting and verifying the figures are robust. “We know many people have doubts about the research that we and other research companies do,” says Jihad Fakhreddine, media research manager at PARC. “Some people say it is not reliable, that people don’t cooperate, don’t respond, that they give the wrong data or the interviewers cheat. The list is long and we know it all. Those in the industry know it. But the system we have in place now is the best currently available.” But calls for greater accountability and clarity in media monitoring are growing louder by the day. Most notably from the recently formed GCC Advertisers Association (GCCAA), the members of which control 75% of ad spend in the Gulf. The industry body, which is made up of the likes of Emirate Airlines, Unilever, Proctor & Gamble and McDonald’s, want to have people-metering technology up and running in Saudi Arabia within 18 months. This would be an electronic method of measuring the TV viewing habits of a statistically valid sample of the population. It comes at a time when ad revenues for the Middle East and North Africa are estimated to rocket to US$3 billion within five years, up from US$1.9 billion last year, according to research analysts at Informa Telecoms & Media. The number of people subscribing to pay TV services from broadcasters such as Showtime and Orbit is also predicted to rise. In the Gulf and Levant Informa projects that, by 2010, there will be 1,024,000 pay TV homes compared to 791,000 in 2005. In response, Ipsos-Stat and PARC fervently defend the research methodology they use to calculate TV viewing figures. Both employ similar techniques, using computer assisted telephone interviewing (CATI) to survey a sample audience to ascertain viewers. Predictably, Saudi Arabia with its large and affluent population is the market that commands the most attention. Ipsos-Stat claims it was the first to introduce CATI in the Kingdom, and says it currently conducts 150 telephone interview a day, delivering the data to TV stations, media agencies and advertisers on a monthly basis. “The data we provide is continuous. Agencies can see the viewing trends, if a station is doing well or not so well. If they have a programme that is booming, you see the ratings are higher. Most of the agencies are using this data,” says Elie Aoun, managing director, Ipsos Stat. In the UAE and Kuwait, the company surveys four times a year, while other smaller GCC countries are sampled just once every 12 months. No third party audits any of the data. Aoun claims the numbers produced by Ipsos-Stat are warmly received by advertising and media agencies, and it is only “politics” that cause people to doubt the accuracy and reliability of the information. “Everyone wants to be number one,” he says. “It is people’s mentality, that is the issue. There is no more number one TV station anymore. You have to look at the number one TV programme, or the number one time slot — that is what is important,” he says. “There is a lot of politics in this region,” Aoun adds.||**|||~|Sahely,-Sara---EMIRATES-GRO.jpg|~|Sara Sahely, vice chairman of the GCCAA, claims people-metering will not only benefit advertisers, but also TV networks as well.|~|PARC operates a similar system in the Kingdom, but works alongside the Media Agency Council (MAC) to monitor the Saudi market. “In 2004 a number of media buying agencies set up MAC to dispel any doubts about the credibility of the data. They have done something unique. Instead of having one research company doing all the data collection, processing and dissemination, they are using two,” Fakhreddine explains. PARC and Taylor Nelson Sofres (TNS) carry out a total of 4,000 CATI-based interviews a month, splitting the workload in half. They claim that, during the interviewing process, auditors listen into the interview and can even monitor what information is being keyed into the computer. Once all the information has been collected it is passed to a third party for auditing. “This has been a major achievement,” says Fakhreddine. “No one can doubt that anyone is tampering or messing with the data.” However, none of the most recent data has yet to see the light of day, even though it has been reviewed by the industry. “Regrettably, some of the data has not been put into the market for usage,” Fakhreddine adds. “There is some debate over the data itself, whether it still captures the media scene,” he says. Aoun goes one step further. “MAC is quite dead now. It has been six months and they have not done anything,” he says. “MAC did not endorse even the last study that was released. They were responsible for it, but said they would not endorse it,” Aoun adds. The response from the television networks to audience data is mixed. Showtime’s chief executive officer, Peter Einstein, says free to air services such as MBC and Dubai TV will rely far more on viewing figures than subscription satellite packages. “We know that most Showtime subscribers are in the AB1 category, because 78% buy our top two packages. The rest of the industry is in a desperate need of upgrading. There is no people-meter data available, and the figures that are available are never as robust as metering,” he explains. “For us, ad sales are a very small part of our revenue, less than 10%.” Asked if Showtime purchased the audience viewing figures from the likes of Ipsos-stat and PARC, Einstein replied: “No, because I don’t believe the research is accurate enough to give me the information I want to have.” At the Middle East Broadcasting Corporation, executives view audience figures with a slightly more positive outlook. “We look at research in the totality. Figures provide us with trends, both in the past and for the future. From 2002 onwards these trends have shown that MBC is the top rated station, the leading station. We are in a unique and privileged situation, so we are happy with whatever research comes up,” says Michel Costandi, business development director at MBC. He also dismisses claims that the only reason MBC is happy with the audience figures it receives is because it puts them on top, saying: “At MBC we believe in research, whether good or bad.” But Costandi agrees that the data given to TV stations is less than perfect. “Within the industry there are still many things that need to be improved on, but we have come a long way. I know there are doubts about the numbers, but no one is ever going to be 100% happy with the methodology, the sample size or location,” he says. “We might be a cycle behind Europe and the United States, but we are not wrong. We started with face-to-face interviewing, then we moved to CATI and the next thing will be people-metering. The problem with the Middle East is that people want everything to happen right here and right now.” However, Costandi adds, one area where parties agree is that there is an urgent need for people-metering data. “The electronic system is capable of monitoring every second a TV is in use. It is widely used in the United States, Europe and Australia. In the Middle East, the only country to have it in place is Lebanon,” he explains.||**|||~|Fakhreddine,-Jihad-----GALL.jpg|~|“We know many people have doubts about the research that we and other research companies do,” says Jihad Fakhreddine, media research manager at PARC.|~|Ipsos-Stat together with AGB, which set up and manage people-meter services, currently sample 400 homes a day and there are plans to increase it to 600. “We really hope there will be people-metering in the region, because it is the most accurate system,” says Aoun. Fakhreddine agrees. “Thee is no doubt that people-metering will provide more clarity in the market, but it is some way off, and it costs a lot of money to set up. You are talking millions and millions of dollars,” he says. “It is the next cycle we have to move to,” adds Costandi. “At the moment it is the ultimate. We are all in favour of this because it will give us day-to-day accuracy. People–metering will take us into an area where there is less doubt, but it does not mean it will end doubt.” Sara Sahely, vice chairman of the GCCAA, claims people-metering will not only benefit advertisers, but also TV networks as well. The group, each of whose 32 members must spend more than US$1 million in advertising a year to be a member, has established a charter to address concerns over viewing figures and “stake a claim” about advertisers’ expectations in terms of ad spend. “The baseline mandate for the GCCAA is to improve the caliber and practice of advertising in this region, that is going to come from having our say or trying to influence best practice in production and media,” she says. The GCCAA has formed a technical committee to examine ways of introducing people-metering into the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and is looking at collaborating with partners to achieve its objectives. “If people-meters can prove that the ratings are much better in off-peak than we are guessing them to be right now, then the TV stations can command a higher price, and we will pay that price because we know there is an audience we are going to reach,” Sahely says. “The media buying organisations and the advertising agencies get the benefit too, because if there are higher rates being paid, then there is better commission, and we as advertisers are getting better results because we know our ads are being watched.” Einstein adds: “I don’t know when people-metering will happen, but I do know it can’t happen soon enough. It is the only way to change the industry to a far more robust and healthy one.” There are uncertain times ahead for research companies involved in TV audience monitoring. They are facing increasing pressure to deliver credible numbers that reflect the true state of the industry. As Fakhreddine says, “the industry is undergoing changes. It is an interesting time for everyone involved. The challenge for us as researchers is to provide the best systems and methodologies that are available today.”||**||

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