a new Internet audience for BBC Online? (1998)

If there’s any uncertainty about whether the Internet is the way to go, it’s worth taking a lesson from history. There’s no need to go far back in time, a visit to the era when radio was king will do fine. Here was a mass medium finding an audience as TV does today, and as I recall desperately searching for something for ‘me’, a medium not too bothered about looking for more.
The contented sceptics would no doubt ask why anyone should go into TV when radio offered so much. Why put money into TV? Why look for more audience? Why do you need to see who’s talking to you? They’re the kind of questions must have found the BBC, the UK’s national radio service. And oh how we can laugh today – new media, and the Internet is one, means new audiences.

I was talking with Mark Rogers, commissioning editor at BBC Online who threw some light on the idea of the Internet finding its audience. He says that although it isn’t exactly a new audience, the Internet does find one that doesn’t watch TV very much. Leading this group are people who spend a lot of time at work in front of desks, arrive home late and only get to watch a late news program. Likewise there are college students who nearly always have free access to the web, and nearly always find things to do away from the TV. “We sense there’s a lot of people like that can be reached specifically through online”, he added.

In particular, the key audience coming online are adolescents, often male, never ‘kids’ and quite sophisticated. They’re attracted to online, its interaction and an online community. They’re seeking online chat and discussion areas where they’re itching to feedback on whatever – soaps, pop groups or the choice of a soccer team.

The viewing figures, which on the Internet are measured in ‘page impressions’, show some significant blips at the BBC: a typical quiet morning rises to a peak at lunchtime dropping off and rising to another peak in the early evening. These you’d call the prime times for office and home surfing. These findings are also born out by research in the US, where Gallup figures show the 18 – 24 year olds use the Internet for work and play, with over half of them using it for chatting. Middle-aged adults use the Internet for keeping up on news, searching for information and look much less, that’s only 20%, for the interaction that comes from chat.

Feedback is a definite feature of the Internet – but it’s not just audience research. Providers use ‘page impressions’ to win advertising – using ABC (Audit Bureau of Circulation – as opposed to say BARB with TV) to validate their claims. Instead of selling advertising by time, it’s sold by the number of page views or impressions. Surprisingly perhaps, counting page impressions is the wobbly kind of science. There’s still no knowing how long people dwell on a page, and because many Internet providers store, or ‘cache’ the most popular sites to improve their access times, many page views go unrecorded – much to the annoyance of those selling the adverts.

But BBC Online is a non-commercial service, funded by a television license fee. In turn that means it can provide the public service information that Internet services have a hard time making money with and not only reach that older audience but the niche ones too. So here, the extra channel of programme facts and fanzines you’d normally find on a TV station’s Internet site is for example, supplemented with consumer, first aid and crime prevention information. It’s cleverly tied in with support for TV shows such as Watchdog, 999 and CrimeWatch. It’s neat too in that it runs not just round the clock when the programmes are off the air, but between series too. Those with a permanent or ISDN connection to the Internet will especially appreciate their news ‘ticker’ that scrolls across your screen and constantly updates its news. This handy accessory is worth finding some screen space for and is available from http://www.bbc.co.uk/inform/ticker.html

Elsewhere on the Internet there are few survivors of pioneering attempts to win paid subscriptions to web sites – a small number of operations with captive audiences do well, the Wall Street Journal site seems to do well but mostly advertising oils the Internet. Even the BBC, in partnership with ICL, has grown an advertising funded service called beeb @ the BBC. Described by some as ‘chiquely tabloid’ it is lively, funny and has one of the best UK TV listings services. As one of the ventures of BBC Worldwide, the enterprising BBC media business that produces CDs, multimedia CD-Rom and TV show magazines, it creams off the TV brands that meet the new, young viewers. Never mind the fact that this is new way of doing media, if it continues to be popular we’ll see the simple facts about looking for and playing to the audience. (By Roger Frost)



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