Revealed: The figures showing STV Glasgow’s test card is more popular than its programmes

Something funny happened on Sunday, March  19th.  Around 9000 people tuned into STV’s hyperlocal channels in Glasgow and Edinburgh to watch a caption telling them the channel wasn’t on yet.Eight thousand people had done it the previous Friday, and a further seven thousand two days earlier.

Apart from an edition of Peter and Roughie’s Football Show, a televised phone-in programme aired on the Wednesday beforehand, Sunday’s animated graphic that basically told viewers ‘nothing to see here yet, come back later’ was the second most watched thing on STV Glasgow and Edinburgh that week.

The Friday and Wednesday instances turned out to be the fourth and fifth most watched things on the channel that week. They proved more popular with audiences than three episodes of Taggart, Saturday night’s news bulletin and the Thursday edition of Peter and Roughie.

Or, if you want to look at it another way, 15% of STV Glasgow’s most popular output between March 13 and 19 this year was a station ident screen.  Cumulatively, 24,000 people watching the channel tuned in to see the equivalent of a test card.

Here’s proof, courtesy of the latest figures from the Broadcasters’ Audience Research Board – the industry standard audience measurement group for television channels.

STV, in their latest results announcement earlier this month, said:

The City TV services, STV Glasgow and STV Edinburgh, have delivered an audience with an average reach of 759,000 viewers per month, 30% of the available audience within their transmission area.

So what does it mean when we talk about the reach of a channel.  Well, here’s STV to explain it in their own words.

BARB’s own definition is “the percentage of the population in private households who view a channel for more than 3 minutes in a given day or week”.  And for the benefit of those who don’t know how it works, here’s how BARB actually measures audiences.

When smaller channels talk about audiences, they often talk of reach.  It’s a nebulous enough number that it allows channels with small audiences to sound like they have a bigger, more impactful audience than they truly do.  While industry professionals will understand what it means, journalists – particularly those not as au fait with the actual process of audience measurement – will take that number at face value.

But the disconnect between reach and actual viewing figures is, at times, huge – particularly for more niche output.

It’s the reason why you will see Scottish journalists continue to insist that cult fantasy TV series Outlander is a major TV hit, when in reality, in the USA it gets on average the same number of viewers Neighbours does on Channel 5 and in the UK its audience is literally unknown, as Amazon Prime doesn’t release audience data.

What’s slightly curious is that very few of the STV Cities channels’ exclusive commissions break into the top ten programmes for the channel.

The only programmes that have, in the last six months, are their updates from the Edinburgh Festival.  For the week ending August 14 2016, their coverage was the fourth and sixth most watched thing on the channel.  The week after it took four places in the top ten – including being the second most watched show on the channel with 9000 viewers.

The week after that it took two slots – fifth and seventh –  and raked in a whopping 11,000 viewers for the first of those, while in the final week of the festival it was the most watched programme, drawing 14,000 viewers according to BARB’s figures.

Since then, though, announced programming has failed to break into the channel’s most viewed content, according to industry measurement.

Live boxing, scheduled for September 29th, doesn’t appear in that week’s top ten, despite the tenth most watched show having an audience of 4000 viewers.  Polish import War and Love fails to trouble the top ten at all.  The live Remembrance Day coverage doesn’t make the BARB rankings, nor does the boxing on November 24th.

This isn’t of course the whole story.  Context is key – there could be major news events happening, high profile competing content on other channels, and folk may have recorded it for later viewing.

Trying to find a comparative channel for the STV City ratings data isn’t easy, nowadays, if one wants to see how it’s doing in the context of the local TV market, which this week continued to chip away with the launch of its 23rd new channel.

S4C2, the most obvious comparison, shut down in 2010 while the new hyperlocal network of channels in England – such as This Is Manchester or Norwich’s Mustard TV – has performed at levels low enough that BARB doesn’t have tracking data for their shows collectively, let alone as individual broadcasters.

London Live is perhaps the only one that could conceivably be likened to STV Glasgow and Edinburgh (or, as we will be calling it soon, STV2), so how did it fare during the same time period 24,000 people were watching a station barker?

As London Live claims an audience reach of 2.7million viewers, that top figure means 2.4% of its potential audience was watching the channel.  STV’s top show in the same time period, drawing 12,000 viewers against a reach of around 760,000 viewers, was pulling in 1.6% of its potential audience.

But London Live also has the benefit of significant cross promotion with the Evening Standard, and a channel library featuring some major drama and comedy hits – Made in Chelsea and Embarrassing Bodies featuring in that top ten, for example, so its pull is perhaps slightly skewed.

Actually, there is one more obvious channel to compare with STV Cities’ figures.  Or rather there would be, if data was available.

BBC Alba, the Gaelic language channel operated by MG Alba, has to date resisted BARB listings in favour of its own method of audience data collection.

Like STV Glasgow and Edinburgh, it boasts of having a reach in excess of 750,000 people, and has distribution on Freeview, online and via non-terrestrial digital platforms.  But despite its nationwide carriage, MG Alba has not adopted the industry standard audience measurement approach, something I’ve regularly criticised.

This means that, aside from the press releases MG Alba puts out, nobody has a real idea of how the channel is performing.  And as we’ve discussed, that reach number is significantly different from the actual day to day audience.

Ultimately all this may seem like sneering at STV Glasgow and Edinburgh’s numbers, but it’s genuinely not.  Because while the audience may be small, and at times it is people literally watching nothing, it is also an audience that is measurable in a way the industry recognises.

As STV gears up to roll its Cities output across the rest of Scotland, as it invests in new content, and as it prepares to launch a Scottish Seven on the new channel, it is at least sticking its head above the parapet and letting itself be measured – and in that respect, given how other city-based hyperlocal channels are doing, and given the obfuscation of comparable rivals in producing genuine audience data, it can claim a qualified success.