ATV has bailed on fellow industry players for the first time in 30 years to independently adopt a different way of measuring the ratings of its television programmes it believes to be underrated.
But the station's move amid the pending issue of new free-to-air television licences has drawn severe criticism from its former rating research partners, rival TVB and the Association of Accredited Advertising Agencies of Hong Kong (HK4As). They say ATV is ditching an internationally recognised ratings research method and creating an unfair business environment for advertisers.
ATV has enlisted the University of Hong Kong's public opinion programme to conduct its own survey on the audience's ratings and views on the station's fare, after it declined to renew its partnership late last month with research firm CSM Hong Kong, which was jointly commissioned by TVB and HK4As in 2004 to conduct ratings for terrestrial channels.
In addition to viewing numbers, the new study, which costs ATV 'several million dollars', will delve into its audience's age, sex and income and whether they enjoy watching the shows. A new measure called the quality mass index - which incorporates the audience's rating and appreciation of each programme - will be used for future assessments.
Kwong Hoi-ying, ATV's senior vice-president, said it was unreasonable and incomprehensive to use audience rating as the only yardstick against which to measure the worth of a programme. 'The survey will not only measure the number of viewers in front of televisions, but also take into account other media channels such as YouTube, the internet and mobile phones,' Kwong said. He hoped the research would create a new standard for advertisers.
Dr Robert Chung Ting-yiu, director of the HKU programme, said: 'We don't know whether the audience is criticising or praising the fare while watching TV. Whether the audience enjoys the programme is a whole new area [of study].'
A telephone poll of 1,318 people aged nine or above on their television viewing habits was held this month. The results, released yesterday, showed all of them - or 6.14 million people by projection - watched television for at least five minutes over seven days, of which 4.39 million were watching ATV. About 3.77 million watched ATV news broadcasts and 1.77 million watched the 33rd Top 10 Chinese Gold Songs Awards, jointly held with RTHK on January 9. The HKU study, to run for three years, will track 650 participants a week.
Chung's method contrasts with CSM's use of the 'people metre' - a device plugged into the television sets of 650 sample households that records viewing habits. CSM uses the rating point system, in which one point represents 63,600 viewers.
In previous research on ratings, ATV, TVB and HK4As shared the annual cost of more than HK$12 million of hiring CSM for the job. HK4As paid 15 per cent of the cost, while the two terrestrial broadcasters shared the rest equally.
HK4As officer Ray Wong Kwok-chu said the six-year contract with CSM expired at the end of last year, and ATV decided not to renew it at the last minute. HK4As and TVB will hire CSM for another two years, with the advertisers' body paying 15 per cent of the research costs.
Wong said media agencies under HK4As were facing a dilemma because, using CSM's ratings for ATV, they could not sell ATV ad slots to many advertisers, particularly global firms. 'International advertisers such as P&G and McDonald's have been using 'cost per rating point' as an internationally recognised industry standard measurement for TV ad placements,' he said. 'Now that ... we have only TVB's ratings, more ads might go to TVB, and this will just boost TVB's dominance in the industry, which is not good for advertisers.'
He said that although 70 per cent of TVB's advertising dollars was estimated to come from agencies under HK4As, compared with only 20 per cent for ATV, ATV should expect a drop in advertising dollars because of the change.
TVB's general manager of broadcasting Cheong Shin-keong said ratings research in the city was based on top global standards. 'It's impossible to do it on the phone. Phone interviews were only used in TV ratings research 30 years ago,' Cheong said.
He said the people metre could measure ratings around the clock, and that advertisers needed not just programme ratings, but also ratings of ad breaks. He said such measurements were also important references for production and programming. 'Plus this is a method generally agreed by all the stakeholders.'
Hong Kong Televisioners Association vice-chairman Peter Lam Yuk-wah said that although the people metre was not perfect, it was reliable and generally recognised by industry players around the world.
Baptist University's film academy head Chuek Pak-tong welcomed a new research method to challenge the one that had been used for years. 'If Chung's study is done properly, it can have an impact on advertisers' views and [help them] consider the possibility of a different set of ratings measurement. For viewers, their viewing habits might be affected as certain shows on ATV might not be as unpopular as they had imagined.'