The Television Rating Points (TRP) scam has consequences that go much beyond the lung power of uncouth anchors, whose nightly shows, one thought, were comic relief after a hard day’s work — only to learn late that the joke was on us, the viewers. This scam has layers and layers of fraud, duplicity, dog-whistle politics and hatred in varying doses that have damaged the entrails of the body politic and conned the average Indian to turn her into something that she was not. Of late, Indians were made to believe that a certain brand of loud, brash, opinionated, hate-filled reporting and anchoring is what news TV ought to be because that is what viewers want. And the proof of what the viewers want was dished out in terms of TRP figures week after week, proclaiming that any sober, reasonable and true reflection of social realities is not acceptable or palatable to the viewer. That thousands of crores worth of advertising was riding on these TRP numbers is the crucial dimension of the fraud as this money further fuelled the disgusting content.
When the TRP scam was busted in Mumbai in the first week of this month, it was merely the exposé of a poorly-kept secret. All that the agency or its employees or former employees involved in conducting the viewership survey for the industry body that controlled the Rs 70,000-crore Indian advertising pie had to do to manipulate the TV ratings was to bribe some of the 44,000 homes where the TRP meters — or bar-o-meters — were kept. As for English news TV, it was simpler as the panel of homes was much smaller — a fraudster TV company operator had only to bribe 10 households to keep a particular channel on the whole day. And these 10 households were mostly from a certain category, for which a paltry payment of Rs 400-500 every month was a good enough bribe. So, just Rs 400 a month was enough to decide the fate of budgetary allocation of thousands of crores of rupees; worse, that meagre amount was enough to inject poison into the minds of perfectly normal people.
This scam is the collective failure of the industry body, the Indian media, the advertising fraternity and the government regulators. It was kept hidden all these years because many important players were complicit in it at one time or the other. Sure, the industry body has suspended the ratings for three months, but the alternative that it would come up with cannot be a dramatically improved version of the scandalous, criminal enterprise that finally got exposed by the Mumbai police. Earlier, when the print industry faced a similar situation, all that was done was to change the agency (in fact, the same agency’s former employees are in the dock now for the fake TRP scam).
Market survey findings can and will get manipulated, and so would any other currency; it is for the industry — TV, print or digital — to come up with a more complex system involving several matrices, with all of them indicating a similar result for the ratings body to proclaim a certain news TV channel a clear winner. Apart from bar-o-meters, results of separate market surveys of viewers and advertisers, and digital consumption patterns ought to converge to identify a leader. Similarly, a market survey with a questionably small sample size should not be enough to proclaim a newspaper as the No. 1. It should be factored in along with circulation figures and the strength of advertising rates and volumes, particularly classified ads, which is the best test of a brand.
Another dangerous dimension of the TRP scam is the attempt by the UP government and the CBI to hijack a case filed by the police of another state government. Should every crime committed in a state ruled by a non-BJP government and investigated by its police be simultaneously investigated by the police of a BJP-ruled government and conveniently passed on to the CBI? This agency is well known for its political investigations, as none other than the Supreme Court of India had termed it a parrot caged by the Central government. This tendency was first witnessed in the case of Sushant Singh Rajput’s suicide. But at least Rajput hailed from that state, Bihar, and his family members were grieving complainants. Not so in the case of TRP manipulation. Here an executive of a Delhi-based advertising agency filed the complaint in Lucknow, which was handed over to the CBI in just 24 hours! At times the Indian bureaucracy functions at lightning speed, but only when it is ordered by the political bosses. Is that the case with the TRP scam as well? The Maharashtra government seems to believe so, and that is why it has withdrawn the general consent to the CBI, limiting its powers in the state. Now the CBI has to seek permission from the Maharashtra government for every case it has to investigate in the state.
But why would the Centre tear down the gossamer-thin federal fabric that holds the Union and the states together over a TV rating scandal? Therein lies the rub! The media in India holds disproportionate sway over the hearts and minds of the people, in shaping opinions that determine the fate of elections and ultimately, that of the nation. Just as Rs 400-a-month payouts decide advertising priorities worth thousands of crores of rupees, the same can determine the credibility of the news channels. But journalistic credibility is priceless — it cannot be tabulated like a balance sheet; it lies in immeasurable virtues of goodwill and respect, which ought to get translated into reach or viewership and readership. If viewership parameters are tampered with, then credibility gets manufactured. News, views and opinions matter only if they are credible, and they all seem to have been cheaply manipulated like the bar-o-meters — by and for a political reason.