Do some TV shows really have zero viewers?

Viewing figures suggest some BBC Scotland programmes were viewed by absolutely nobody – but the truth is a little more complicated

LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - OCTOBER 22:  People walk near the entrance to  BBC Broadcasting House on October 22, 2012 in London, England. A BBC1 'Panorama' documentary to be broadcast later tonight contains new allegations about the handling by BBC2 programme 'Newsnight' concerning claims of sexual abuse allegedly carried out by fomer BBC television presenter, Jimmy Savile, the transmission of which was subsequently dropped. Police have confirmed that Sir Jimmy Savile, the BBC presenter and DJ who died in October 2011 aged 84, may have sexually abused young girls on BBC premises.  (Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

A number of TV shows on BBC’s new Scottish channel haven’t been watched by a single person. At least, that’s what a report from the Mail on Sunday suggests, claiming that 21 of its programmes – including news bulletin The Seven, talk show The Collective and music programme Tune – achieved a viewership of zero.

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So, were these BBC Scotland shows actually broadcast to an audience of absolutely nobody? Wasn’t at least one person tuning in? Well, it’s hard to tell thanks to how viewing figures work.

These zero viewing figures – from 24th February and 2nd June this year – were compiled by The British Audiences Research Board (BARB). Although the main source of TV ratings, BARB primarily relies on the TV habits of only 5,300 households (about 12,000 people) scattered throughout the UK, extrapolating them to generate viewing figures. This means each member of the panel actually represents about 5,000 viewers.

Simply put: overnight figures aren’t exact, just a good estimate.

And because they’re an estimate based on a small sample, channels outside the mainstream may struggle to achieve decent viewing figures. If a special interest channel doesn’t catch the eye of the small BARB panel then a show will inevitably get poor ratings – although BARB goes through great lengths to make their sample as representative as possible, it’s likely nobody with that specialist interest sits on the panel.

So, why is the panel so small? Why does BARB rely on a tiny sample to represent the viewing habits of some 66 million Brits?

As BARB told RadioTimes.com, it all comes down to money. It’s quite expensive to add more people to the sample, with members’ viewing habits watched very closely: each panel household is given a small monitoring box for every screen they own, plus a remote that’s used to record how many people are watching the screen at that current moment (there’s an assigned button for each person in the house).

“Like any research project like this, you balance getting a big enough sample to give you a robust read on what everyone is doing across the nation and cost,” said Doug Whelpdale, Insights Manager at BARB.

“If we had 20,000 households we would have less variability in our data, but the study would cost a lot lot more […] If we wanted to half the standard error in our data, we would have to have a panel four times as big.”

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In other words, until new viewership technology is rolled out – or BARB get their hands on a whole lot of money –  we won’t know exactly how many people watch each TV show. So, just for moment, just know that a viewership of zero might not be just that.