Time for BARC to take off, else…

01 Aug,2012

 

By A Correspondent

 

As many parts of the country experienced successive power failures yesterday, India’s booming broadcast sector plunged into its darkest hour as the news trickled in of NDTV suing measurement agency TAM and its principals. One wouldn’t want to get into the merits and demerits of the case or the arguments in the 194 pages filed by the news network’s lawyers… that’s for the Courts in New York to decide, or perhaps settled outside of it. The matter is sub-judice.

 

But surely matters wouldn’t have reached this level had our broadcasters and trade bodies shown some urgency on the measurement issue in the last five years.

 

Yes, TAM was mandated by the industry to measure data, but the stakeholders using it also realised soon enough that there is need to have an industry initiative to administer the measurement process. The decision was to have a body, acronymed BARC (for Broadcast Audience Research Council).  Founded in 2008, BARC has been resting in the works thanks to differences on who should be its stakeholders. Initially it was to be only the broadcasters and the advertisers, but earlier this year – at FICCI Frames 2012 – it was announced that as the key intermediary between advertisers and broadcasters, the Advertising Agencies Association of India (AAAI) would also be ‘part-owner’.  So, the IBF was to have 60 per cent stake in BARC, while the ISA (Indian Society of Advertisers) and the AAAI were to each be 20% stakeholders.

 

A professional CEO was to be appointed and RFPs (Requests for Proposal) for the agencies conducting the field measurement and the analysis was to be published.

 

When last heard, not much had visibly moved on the BARC front. From the learnings of the Media Research Users Council (MRUC) and the Readership Studies Council of India which are mandated to champion the proposed merged NRS and IRS studies, it could take around nine months for the entire process from issuing an RFP to selecting an agency.

 

And what happens to TAM and the loads of investments it has made? When MxMIndia asked Paritosh Joshi (formerly CEO, Star CJ and IBF Board Member) about the fate of TAM soon after he made the announcement in March this year, he was quite categorical that the situation will not change overnight.  Clearly the objective of BARC is to herald the arrival of the next generation of TV Audience Measurement and not to boot out TAM, but to ensure that whoever undertakes the research has a clear cut brief and the Industry gets a transparent system.

 

INDUSTRY SHOCKED, CAUTIOUS

While most broadcasters are tightlipped on the issue and do not officially wish to comment on the NDTV lawsuit, privately their response is: “I told you so”.  However, it must be pointed out that often channels with low ratings have complained of inefficiencies in the measurement process. These allegations would hence be scoffed at. On its part, TAM has taken pains to cleanse the process after inefficiencies were exposed in the early 2000s.

 

MxMIndia correspondents reached out to the spokespersons of nearly all key broadcasters and while they were understandably hesitant to comment on the litigation, views on the TAM process were also not forthcoming. A spokesperson for the Reliance Broadcast Network Ltd though did give us this statement: “The need of the hour for broadcasters in India and the world over is a robust, reliable research system and analytical tool. TAM needs to offer a system which will help decision-making by offering insights that are not only legitimate and pioneering but also add value to the business and in turn the end consumer.”

 

The CEO of a channel who claimed he has benefitted and lost much from TAM’s ratings put things in perspective: “India has its own peculiarities and even though a channel may be high profile, its viewership numbers may not be very high. In the light of this, reporting channels with small viewership numbers can be hazardous given error-rates. And in case there is corruption in the system – which is tough to check – the results can be damaging.”

 

A few former and present broadcasters also indicated that they were concerned about the impact of taking on TAM given its ownership. Although TAM is autonomous, one is aware that it is owned jointly by Nielsen and Kantar. The latter is owned by WPP, the network that runs media agency network GroupM. “There is no way I can afford to take on Group M,” the CEO quoted earlier told MxMIndia.

 

NDTV’s move is therefore being dubbed as “bold” by the few broadcasters and media buyers we spoke with who also said TAM is certain to change course soon.

 

Reasoned a senior planner from a non-Group M agency, “There is no denying that TAM has done some pioneering work in the business.  However, it would have been prudent for it to have improved the system and rid itself of the anomalies.”

 

THE GOVERNMENT COULD BARK…

The industry bodies have effectively fought back every move of the government to police the measurement process even as the I&B ministry has received several representations over the years stressing the need for the ratings process to be monitored more efficiently.

 

A few broadcasters this correspondent spoke were anxious that the government might grab this opportunity to take over or ‘nationalise’ the measurement process given the stakes on hand.

 

If the industry doesn’t get its act together in a week or two, it shouldn’t be surprised if the ministry of information and broadcasting jumps into the act.

 

NDTV and its founders have been the most respected names in Indian broadcasting. That may have eroded a bit after the 2G scam in 2010, but surely there is enough ammunition for the ministry to load its arsenal against the industry’s inactivity.

 

NEXT STEPS

The IBF, ISA and AAAI must convene near-instantly to take stock of the situation and get BARC activated. The RFP must be issued by early September and the selection of the new agencies early next year.

 

Until then, the trio should get TAM to take corrective measures. Although it is privately owned and hence needn’t heed industry advice, given the opportunities in the business, TAM is bound to play ball.

 

It would be disastrous for all if the government chooses to ask TAM to cease publication of its ratings or take an extreme step of taking it over (or nationalising it). However, it must be underscored that even though there are many broadcasters who oppose TAM ratings, a large number of advertisers and media agencies – even outside of the WPP network – appear fine with the measurement process and, one may assume, have profited from advertisements appearing at slots measured by TAM Peoplemeters.

 

Watch this space for more.

 

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