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Editor's blog: "we want to hear your views" - focus groups, feedback and the BBC

We publish the response to a recently filed ourBeeb Freedom of Information request on the BBC's little-known Audience Councils and its other feedback mechanisms. Are these focus groups and 'market research' surveys sufficient? If not, how might they be improved?

Dan Hancox
22 August 2012

They're arguably some of the most over-used phrases in modern broadcasting: "tell us what you think", "get in touch", "send us your blurry camera-phone pictures of a wonky snowman built by a six year old". This gesture towards audience involvement, participation, and feedback is often, alas, but a gesture. Over the last few months we've addressed accountability at the BBC in a number of ways - through suggestions of a complete overhaul of internal democracy, nationwide voting for the DG, reform of the licence fee, or a general 'BBC glasnost' - an opening up of its internal procedures.

One of the FOIs we filed on this subject a month or so ago has just come back. The full reply is here for download, as a PDF. The questions were as follows:

1. Has there been any research conducted into ways of ensuring that feedback from BBC licence payers is thorough and representative?
2. Has there been any attempt to reform the current system of feedback and audience representation?
3. Can we see any internal documents regarding the future of audience councils?

Taking the last question first, we were pointed to the Trust's operating protocols, and minutes from Audience Council meetings, but told ultimately no, there were no documents charting the future of that feedback mechanism beond the current Charter. So what of audience representation generally? Here's how they answered the first two questions:

Audience research to obtain feedback from BBC licence fee payers is carried out both by the BBC Trust and by the Marketing and Audiences (M&A) department of the BBC. I can confirm under section 1(1) of the Act that the BBC’s M&A department do not hold any information about research into or reform of their market research.

All market research carried out by the M&A department is by agencies on the BBC’s roster of market research agencies. This roster is procured under EU legislation to ensure we have a range of high quality agencies who are able to deliver a range of research solutions to us. You can find a list of the agencies here:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/pressoffice/pressreleases/stories/2011/07_july/14/roster.shtml

These agencies are experts in the field of market research. Our quantitative agencies all abide to the MRS (Market Research Society) code of conduct and are experienced in ensuring that this sort of research is carried out using a representative sample of whatever audience is being looked at, whether that be Radio 1 listeners or all UK adults.

The BBC Trust has confirmed that it also does not hold any information about research into or reform of their market research. The Trust has provided the following statement which explains the market research they carry out and how the Trust ensures that it is representative.

“The Trust needs to understand the views of ALL audiences, including those who may not take part in open consultations. The Trust carries out a programme of research each year where we make sure that we cover many different audience groups in any one year. Each research piece is tailor-made and commissioned for a specific project. These might include:

* Public opinion surveys, an example being the Purpose Remit Survey where research involves interviews with a large number of people (the sample for the Purpose Remit Survey is c2200) either face to face, telephone or online. In this type of survey the sample is usually randomised but the Trust ensures that it is representative of the population of the UK and where necessary and appropriate boosts the sample to ensure robust data and results.

* Qualitative research discussion groups (focus groups) which look at specific issues for projects with different audience groups. This research and its sample is tailored for the specific project – projects this year have included Local Radio, Asian Network, 5Live – so different audience groups have been able to provide feedback to the BBC.

* Research workshops which allow members of the public to have in-depth discussions about key issues under consideration by the Trust.

We always publish a report of the findings of our research projects which includes details of the sample spoken to.

As our research programme is commissioned project by project (with the exception of the Purpose Remit Survey), we ensure that the research brief contains details of the sample we wish to talk to. We also keep the Purpose Remit Survey under review again to ensure that we are talking to a representative sample of the UK public and licence fee payers. We have processes in place to make sure that all of our research is as open to people from different backgrounds as possible, and also to ensure we are inclusive of the different Nations and regions of the UK, and of people living in urban and rural areas.

In our larger quantitative surveys such as the PRS we also monitor the profile of those taking part, in terms of equality characteristics such as age, sex, ethnicity, disability, faith and sexual orientation.

Our research is commissioned by specialist, research professionals and we work with expert companies in the research industry. All the companies we commission are members of the Market Research Society, and we in turn adhere to the Society’s principles. We have not done any work specifically to reform this as it is constantly reviewed."

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