IF THEY used the same method to add up television ratings as they do to count American Presidential votes we'd still be waiting to discover if more people watched the birth of the first TV millionaire or the death of Victor Meldrew.

Happily for ratings-conscious TV companies, the "peoplemeter" monitoring system does the count in a far quicker and efficient manner than the US election. BARB - the Broadcasters' Audience Research Board - can even provide unofficial overnight figures so that ratings winners can broadcast loudly their victory as soon as possible.

There was no need to examine punch holes in ballot papers to see if more people watched the first £1m winner on ITV's Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? than the death of Victor Meldrew in the final episode of One Foot In The Grave on BBC1.

The following day, unofficial figures showed that Millionaire peaked at 14.9 million, then dipped to 12.7 million once Judith Keppel had pocketed the cheque. Victor drew an average audience of 10.7 million with a peak of 11.6 million.

But, in the words of the old BBC programme, How Do They Do That? there is no big brother watching you watching the TV, no hidden microchip in your TV set logging your viewing habits. Switching over when Barrymore comes on doesn't mean his viewing figures will be one less when they're published.

BARB, the company which provides minute-by-minute data for channels received in the UK, is owned by the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5, BSkyB and the IPA (Institute of Practitioners in Advertising). These are, of course, the people who have most to gain by knowing who's watching what - the broadcasters and the advertising industry. Research covers two areas. One records actual numbers watching, which is broken down further into regional viewing habits. The other notes their reaction to what they've seen.

The BARB nationwide panel comprises 4,485 households, adding up to around 10,500 people. Some 270 homes with about 600 people is the panel size in ITV's Tyne Tees region. These may seem small numbers to produce ratings in millions, but Tony Wearn, BARB's Director of Research, says panels are carefully chosen to represent the country's demographic profile.

This sample number is monitored on "pretty much a daily basis" to ensure it truly is representative. "As it's a voluntary exercise, people are free to withdraw whenever they wish and we replace them with like homes," he adds.

We know from election exit polls and other research that figures don't always reflect the true situation. But BARB is confident that their system is as representative of the 23 million-plus viewing households in the UK as possible. "With our controls we recruit the panels in the first place and it's more strictly controlled samples," he explains. "We have very high standards in our establishment surveys before we recruit people. "Everyone in the country has an equal chance of being interviewed for the panels. It's a household-based sample rather than just asking people in the street or in exit polls."

The establishment survey involves some 40,000 interviews every year to identify changes within the characteristics of the population. As well as providing up-to-date information, this also throws up a pool of potential recruits from which panel member homes can be recruited.

The viewing habits of each household on the panel is electronically monitored through their TV sets, video cassette recorders and set-top box decoders. The system automatically logs the channel to which the TV is tuned when switched on and all viewing involving a VCR. People living in the houses and guests press a button on a handset each time they enter the room. All the stored data is collected by telephone by the processing centre each day to produce overnight viewing data.

As the ratings war between the BBC and ITV intensifies, they're increasingly keen to publicise their victories as soon as possible in the overnight figures. But these are unofficial. The real ones are published ten days later when figures for people who've watched programmes on video after they've been broadcast have been added.

BARB's job is being made more difficult with the increased fragmentation of the TV business with more and more TV channels available through digital, satellite and cable channel. Happily, advances in technology are helping them keep pace with the changes.

The reaction of viewers is monitored through seven-day programme diaries compiled by panel members, along with an additional questionnaire asking more detailed questions about general TV-related issues. There are 2,000 panel members responding weekly with four separate panels, each of 1,000 panel members, reporting monthly. Another 1,000-strong panel covers the views of children aged four to 15. So Victor Meldrew may look at the figures that say he was beaten by Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? and exclaim "I don't believe it" but BARB are confident they've got it right.