‘Research in new fields’, Graham Mytton, BBC World Service, JMRS Vol. 38 No. 1, 1996

Graham Mytton has recently joined the IJMR Executive Editorial Board, and this seems an ideal reason for selecting this paper, as it won the MRS Silver Medal in 1997. The paper describes the work of the then International Broadcasting Audience Research (IBAR) department at the BBC, an organisation that has been a major user of market research methods since its early days. As Mytton describes, the first audience measurement survey conducted overseas was commissioned in Bombay (Mumbai) back in 1944, only twelve years after international broadcasting was introduced by the BBC. Launched in 1932 as the Empire Service, this became the BBC World Service and by 1995 had a global audience of 140 million.

Establishing an international research service

The paper provides a fascinating historical picture of how the World Service evolved, and why audience research was both necessary and experiencing rapid growth  - firstly, for accountability purposes, and secondly, to assist programme makers and management understand international markets. By the time the paper was written, Mytton had headed up IBAR for thirteen years, a period when expenditure on audience research grew from £60,000 to over £1m., with 98 projects in hand by the end of 1995. However, despite an early start for audience measurement in the World Service, growth had lagged behind expenditure to support the UK domestic services. Mytton describes how, in his earlier career within the BBC as producer for both the World Service and for Radio 4, his time at the latter made him realise how little audience feedback had been available when in the former role, meaning there were huge gaps in the knowledge about audiences in many of the countries served by the World Service, the nuances within Nigeria being cited as an example.

The challenges

Mytton describes methodological tests undertaken in different countries, identifying the biases that were inherent in some of the studies, such as seen between postal and face-to-face data collection methods, the results of these experiments being used as evidence to support successful bids for increased funding. Also, there is no independent international measure of readership, such as that enjoyed domestically in the UK (RAJAH at that time), although as the author describes there was, and still is, the Conference of International Audience Researchers (CIBAR: http://www.cibar.org) which had started to develop guidelines on best practice.

Mytton describes the complex process of creating a picture of the overall market based on data from separate surveys. In some countries, regular surveys had become the norm, but estimates were still necessary for several countries where research was not possible (e.g. China, Burma – now Myanmar, Cuba etc), sometimes in countries where political instability, and restrictions on media freedom, led to increased audiences for international broadcasting. And, the paper was written at a time of great change, as following the end of the Cold War, the BBC gained access to new markets in eastern Europe, where it was quickly discovered that research services were far less well developed leading to over-promising, sloppiness, problems of quality and even dishonesty – the challenges being described in detail within the paper. In other emerging economies, such as parts of Africa, the key challenge was the lack of any real research infrastructure.

The author devotes a large part of the paper to discussing cultural barriers, and the difficulties of integrating data where there are widely differing definitions of terms that have a commonality in developed nations, leading to difficulties in harmonising data. Examples cited include the definitions of what constitutes a day, or a household, and even collecting data on participants age could be highly problematic. The challenges of researching sensitive topics is also discussed in detail, with an example describing the development of programmes covering sex education. Often, BBC World Service were pioneers in undertaking quality research in emerging economies, despite the challenges in doing so.

Measuring brand image

The BBC ‘s international image is also discussed, and the value of research in exploring attitudes towards the brand, identifying that positive attributes namely authoritative, reliable, friendly and up-to-date were offset with negative views centred on a stuffy, dull image and content perceived as not particularly lively or entertaining. Understanding audiences and addressing any brand image deficiencies are described as particularly important to meet an increasing need to sell product to local broadcasting services.

A future IJMR Call for Papers

There is a further purpose behind selecting this award-winning paper. Mytton concludes the paper with a discussion of the challenges facing research in emerging economies, quoting Bob Worcester’s comment: ‘those who need market research the most in the world are usually also those who are least likely to be researched’.

Mytton discusses how those committing funds for development were not commonly using research to establish the attitudes and needs of either recipients or beneficiaries, although as the author describes this was beginning to change.

We therefore thought that it would be interesting to see what the position is today. So, we are currently developing a future Call for Papers to explore how research can be applied within development projects. For example, through identifying the needs of the sponsoring organisation, recipients and beneficiaries, and assessing the effectiveness of development projects in achieving their objectives.  

This includes addressing the methodological challenges faced by researchers in undertaking projects in emerging economies, such as those described in past issues of IJMR (e.g. IJMR Young Research Writer Award Finalist 2011, Rosie McLeod, ‘Ownership and change: a case study of action research in Kenya’, IJMR 54/1, 2012; by Mistry & Samant ‘How research assisted the roll-out of a mobile agricultural information service: the day Peepli went live’; Mohanta, Mishra & Dash, ‘Understanding the rural consumer’s behaviour in the context of his ecosystem: a telecommunications perspective’, IJMR 54/5, 2012 – both are Forum articles based on presentations at the IIM (Lucknow) Conference on ‘Marketing Research in Emerging Markets’, Noida, India January 2012). We will be announcing full details later this year.

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