Given the region's relatively small advertising market, industry consensus suggests the long-mooted introduction of a peoplemeter service will not come soon enough. Digital Broadcast spoke to the key identities involved in coordinating its introduction.
There is much hype about the growth of the Middle East TV and film industry, whether it is the launch of new FTA channels, the introduction of a new media zone or film festival or the trumpeted release of a new delivery platform.
This diversification and expansion should be encouraging the development of a lively, innovative and ultimately booming advertising industry with those buying the space and those offering it, reaping the rewards.
"From our experience – with the exception of a few countries – when you have a peoplemeter operation you see an increase in advertising expenditure in those markets. - Elie Aoun, COO, Ipsos MENA."
The stunted advertising revenues of the Middle East have been attributed to a variety of factors. The TV industry has regularly pointed to the lack of wide-scale and reliable audience measurement as a reason why ad revenues have not been keeping pace with the growth seen on all other fronts.
IpsosAGB, a joint venture between Ipsos and Nielson AGB, offers an established peoplemeter service in Lebanon with the viewing habits of 400 households currently monitored.
"We hope to expand the service to include 600 households in the near future," says Elie Aoun, COO at Ipsos MENA. "The proposed project in Saudi Arabia is likely to be more like 1800 households in total."
Rumours of this latter install - dubbed "Project Illumination" - have been circulating amongst industry figures for some time.
MBC has publicly acknowledged its role as one of its founders along with a host of other major broadcasters, media agencies and some of the regional industry's biggest advertisers.
"A committee was formed to put the peoplemeter in place. They invited six media research agencies to pitch for the job last year and IpsosAGB was selected to coordinate the peoplemeter project in Saudi Arabia, but from that point until now nothing has happened," says Aoun.
"We are just waiting for the committee to finalise the contract and confirm a launch date for the service."
With no sign of this announcement and Aoun estimating the required start up time of 9-12 months, it is unlikely that a peoplemeter could be in place before the end of 2009, almost two years later than the target start date of 2007.
"From our experience - with the exception of a few countries - when you have a peoplemeter operation you see an increase in advertising expenditure in those markets. It is well established that peoplemeters deliver much better results than any other system in the world," says Aoun.
"Having more accurate, minute by minute data will encourage advertisers to spend more money on TV. Those companies that are afraid of their campaign not being well measured, will no longer have those fears."
Aoun also stresses that advertisers are not the only beneficiaries of a peoplemeter system.
"Broadcasters will be able to measure the popularity of their programmes and it will help them to price their ad spots. They will get a breakdown of the territories where a programme is achieving high ratings or otherwise and a demographic overview of who is watching what," says Aoun.
The Nielsen AGB system that will be used in the Saudi Arabian installation will be similar to the hardware currently used in the peoplemeter project in Lebanon.
"The UNITAM meter was developed in response to the challenges facing various TAM (Television Audience Measurement) organisations as technological developments have accelerated across the last few years, particularly with regard to non-linear viewing," says Edouard Monin, CEO of Ipsos Stat AGB Nielsen Media Research.
"There are around 27,000 UNITAM metering systems installed in our panel households worldwide including highly sophisticated and complex markets such as the UK, Italy and China," adds Monin.
"Given this proven universal metering solution, AGB Nielsen Media Research has no hesitation in saying that we believe it is the right technology for the traditional fixed meter TV ratings panel for the Saudi Arabian television market."
Aside from the obvious advantages of a peoplemeter over the existing telephone survey systems, the UNITAM meter has addressed many of the shortfalls of its predecessors that were unable to monitor non-linear viewing habits and HDTV programming, which was not previously covered.
"UNITAM measures television equipment that was previously unable to be monitored."
"For example, time-shifted viewing on PVR devices, catch-up services and even off-line [VOD] viewing if necessary," claims Monin.
Both the UNITAM and the currently installed system in Lebanon use audio tracking technology that 'listens' to the audio associated with the TV or any audio devices attached to it.
The hardware then matches up signature audio samples from any given programme and automatically reports back to the relevant office charged with monitoring the signal.
The result is a stream of data that can monitor second-by-second viewing over a 24 hour period.
Another component of the system is a handset used by the panellist household that allows each member of the family to identify themselves (or at least their age and gender).
This offers broadcasters and advertisers further insight into their audience demographic without identifying individuals and their responses, in the way that is inherent to the phone interview system.
Peoplemeters clearly offer valuable data and regardless of the much delayed Project Illumination initiative, it is clear that all sides are willing to invest in modern audience measurement system.
The next challenge is implementation.
Return Path Data
In July, AGB Nielsen launched two services based on return path data (RPD). Simplified, this means the STB sends information regarding which channel it is tuned to back to the monitoring office.
This signal can be sent back along the same cable that delivered the TV signal or along a regular landline in the case of satellite delivery.
Questions have been raised regarding the systems effect on a viewer's privacy.
At present the system will be installed in selected households and with their permission rendering these concerns unfounded.
This next stage in audience measurement could in theory be extended to include every subscriber of a service offering a much larger sample size than current methods can realistically provide.
The method is by no means perfect, however. If a STB is left on but the TV set has been switched off, the household would be incorrectly added to the viewing figures. To counter this, the system monitors the time since the last channel change and determines the likely point at which viewing ceased.
To add a demographic element to the data, a phone interview is carried out with each participating household to determine the age, gender and viewing habits of each member. This data can then be used to create a probable viewing profile for that household.
Where an existing peoplemeter is in place, RPD can further refine the regular audio detection-based data.