The saga of television ratings and their alleged manipulation in India is unlikely to end in a hurry. When the Mumbai police acted on a complaint by BARC (Broadcast Audience Research Council)—the TV viewership monitoring agency—and made some arrests, it unearthed an alleged racket involving certain broadcasters gaming the system in their favour. The panel homes where measurement meters are placed were apparently being bribed to keep some channels running to show higher viewership, which ultimately decides the fate of more than ₹30,000 crore of advertising.
Since Republic TV, which runs a Hindi and an English news channel, was named in the case, BARC, in its wisdom, temporarily suspended the viewership data for individual news channels.
In the past 15 days, the commentary on the matter has been exhaustive with experts questioning both BARC’s sample size and methodology.
Many argued that the 44,000 meters installed to map what India watches in a country this size are hugely inadequate, while others batted for eliminating all human intervention in the entire process of measurement. Some also red-flagged the quality of sampling, which seems uniform and not representative of the geographic and demographic spread of India.
These are not the first such allegations.Before BARC, TAM Media Research Pvt. Ltd that provided TV ratings was embroiled in several such controversies. In India, TAM was a 50:50 joint venture between global research firm Nielsen and WPP-owned Kantar. Some years ago, Nielsen was sued by news broadcaster NDTV for fraud in an American court, alleging it published corrupt data favouring rival channels. The trial court dismissed the complaint that Nielsen had fudged data.
Broadcast industry expert Raj Nayak says if TAM had taken constructive feedback from industry stakeholders and implemented changes, BARC would have never happened. Its credibility was eroded, the industry looked at alternatives and then the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) stepped in with specific guidelines.
Prior to that, briefly, aMap appeared on the scene, which was superior in many ways and offered overnight ratings. “While broadcasters started using it, the advertising industry didn’t come forward to support it the way it should have. If it had, we would have had two currencies leading to tough competition for both to scale up and build credibility,” says Nayak.
Media sector veteran Chintamani Rao, closely associated with the formation of BARC, says the biggest issue around BARC today has to do with its ownership structure. It is 60% owned by broadcasters and 20% each by advertisers and advertising agencies. “The original plan was for all three to have equal ownership,” says Rao. He feels this gives broadcasters an undue advantage and influence over the body.
Since advertising revenue is the lifeblood of media, he feels the measurement body should be dominated by advertisers. “The primary function of audience measurement is to direct the ad money to various channels. Advertisers must take charge to ensure their money is well spent,” he says.
For those arguing for a larger sample size, no one has really come up with an ideal number representative of India’s TV universe of 197 million homes. “Given India’s diversity—cultural, social and economic—you could reason it needs more meters. But who will pay for it?” asks Rao, who understands the funding challenge most measurement bodies face.
Earlier this year, Trai proposed the use of Return Path Data (RPD) to increase the sample base. RPD technology enables a set-top box used by cable operators and direct-to-home (DTH) platforms to capture and report what is being watched. But unlike a people meter, a set-top box can only reveal what is on, but not who is watching it.
“It can offer box-level data but not the individual-level data that is crucial for media planning,” says Rao, adding that it is best used as an adjunct to people meter data. “Trai’s proposal mandates universal adoption of RPD, but adds cable operators are free to charge what they want for this data, which makes the whole exercise unfeasible,” Rao says.
Meter-based panel homes work just fine in other markets, but not in India because of our inherent inability to self-regulate. “The effectiveness of self-regulation is a function of culture,” Rao says.
If stakeholders stop playing the blame game, the problem can be resolved with greater transparency as well as honesty and integrity of intent.
Shuchi Bansal is Mint’s media, marketing and advertising editor. Ordinary Post will look at pressing issues related to all three. Or just fun stuff.