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Thursday, 24 July 2014

TV events: The BBC's addiction to fictional figures - UPDATE

For reasons best known to the BBC, it merrily trots out all sorts of figures that just can't be substantiated. It happens all the time, frequently claiming financial and business losses that seem to have been calculated by holding up a wet finger in the wind. You know the sort of thing: A strike is staged or there is a shutdown for some other reason and we are told that there are "losses amounting to [insert any figure you like here]". Sure there are losses caused by shutdowns, but just because a can of beans, a jacket, a book, a dining table or a book of stamps is not sold today doesn't mean it won't be sold tomorrow and, therefore, is not a "loss".

This takes me on to the nonsense frequently repeated by the BBC and other media organisations about audiences for events such as royal weddings, American presidential inaugurations, and major sports.

Take the current claim in news bulletins that the opening of the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow was watched by "up to (or more than) a billion people". How could that be? It's impossible.

Over the years, several ex-BBC editors, including myself, have challenged the "wet finger" calculation of figures, with no apparent effect. Among the most vociferous objectors is a former BBC senior manager and colleague, Graham Mytton, who is an internationally-recognised expert on audience figures. I am taking the liberty to quote from a Facebook entry he made earlier today about a BBC claim that the Commonwealth Games had an audience of more than one billion:
Why does the BBC put out this impossible and self evidently risible rubbish? There are two billion people in the Commonwealth. Most of them will have been asleep last night (it was 2.30 a.m. in India). Is it remotely conceivable that half of them were watching last night? No global TV programme has yet reached a billion, not even the Olympics, although they have come close. Why does the BBC throw away its usual caution and acclaimed authority for accuracy when it comes to global TV audiences? Every time it does this. The Royal Wedding, the Oscars, the World Cup and so on. When I worked at the BBC, one had to have a source. There is no source for this rubbish. Why? Because it is not true. Simple.
Does it matter that the audience figures are inflated? Will anyone care? Well, they should care because the BBC has built up over several decades an international reputation for accuracy. This should apply to every aspect of a story. If it plays fast and loose with figures for such things as business losses and audience figures, what else is considered too good to check?

UPDATE:  On the same subject, this article is worth reading. It denounces the extraordinary claims for the TV audiences for the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton:

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