Is TRAI justified in damning BARC?

28 Feb,2019



By Your Editor


The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI, in short) has been accorded the dual responsibility of the broadcast policy-maker and regulator. Note broadcast (and radio) are the only media entities that are governed so actively and aggressively. Print is dealt with kid gloves, as always. Radio also has suffered thanks to excessive government intervention, and an active social media has ensured that the government can’t do much with digital media. Save GST.


Hum Aapke Hain Koun?

For many, many years, there existed a measurement system governed by TAM – a joint venture owned by WPP-owned Kantar and independent research major Nielsen. TAM won the mandate of broadcasters, advertisers and ad agencies to run the measurement system, and although there may not have been very active handholding by industry representatives, the fact that TAM owed its survival to subscription monies from broadcasters and other stakeholders, it couldn’t afford to mess things. Hence, the market ensured that it behaves and operates well.


But, first, let’s understand who and why we need audience measurement?

In order to get to the bottom of the problem, let’s understand why we need measurement. It’s simple: broadcasters air content. They say their wares are very popular, but there needs to be some tool for them to convince advertisers about this. This tool could be inhouse, but then will advertisers trust it? Hence, a third party measurement system. Now, if I am a large network of media agencies – like GroupM or IPG Mediabrands or a large advertiser like Hindustan Unilever or even the annoying Trivago, I can have my own team or firm doing this exercise of measurement. But these media agencies chose not to do so and relied on another body – in the case of television, TAM earlier and now BARC.


If GroupM/ IPG Mediabrands/ HUL… even Trivago had their own measurement firms, could the government/TRAI police them?

Of course not! How advertisers spend their money is their business. And how media agencies spend the money of their advertiser clients is their problem. Ditto with the measurement mechanism. Clearly, there is no role for government to police measurement. Yes, the government can set up its own measurement mechanism – like TAM or BARC – and hope and pray that they have enough paying subscribers to be able to run a tool. But they’ve been running Air-India, operating hotels and doing several things they shouldn’t be getting into.


The genesis of the problem?

What if you get bad marks in an exam? You grin and bear it. Curse your luck. Resolve to study harder. Or complain to some authority. The government. The local goon. Whosoever. Now this is what happened in the not-too-distant past. There were some influential channels which complained against TAM about the measurement mechanism. They said the process was flawed. That the boxes could be tampered with. That some broadcasters got to know where the boxes were placed and hence influenced the individuals living them. There were also a few people who complained that the content of news and entertainment channels had dipped considerably as some channels were tailoring content only to garner higher ratings. “Hey, we’d love to have shows talking about the chick pea crop, but kya karein, thanks to ratings we need to focus on chicks instead,” was the kind of reply one would get.


Both situations were not far from the truth. Yes, there was tampering, and, yes, there some broadcasters who influenced panel homes. But does this mean that the government should get into the act? Should the government concern itself with the content quality of channels? If there are takers for dumbed down content, let there be.


Hey, aren’t there industry bodies for broadcasters, ad agencies, advertisers?

Of course they exist. And they are all headed by very senior and respected industry folk. One must also reiterate: not only are they currently headed by senior/respected folk, even in the past they were spearheaded by senior/industry folk. So why did they allow the government to intervene (or interfere)? Why did they allow policy-makers to let TRAI to govern them. We don’t have answers to these questions.


Broadcasters do owe it to the government for uplinking/downlinking…

Since the government gives the licence to broadcasters to uplink and downlink signals, it can lay conditions. But in the case of BARC… what’s the government got to do with viewership measurement?


If broadcasters, advertisers and advertising agencies are unhappy with BARC, they’ve got the remote control in their hands. They can express a loss of confidence, debate/ discuss, put them on notice and if they are still unhappy, they can stop their subscriptions. It’s as simple as that.



Could the problems have been eliminated if BARC wasn’t a monopoly?

Competition always helps, but it must be remembered that television viewership measurement is an expensive proposition. Setting up measurement meter boxes isn’t cheap. Clearly there is no stopping multiple bodies in the business of viewership measurement. But, then, will people subscribe to them?


When TAM existed, there was another measurement firm called aMap which existed but thanks to lack of patronage, it had to shut shop. So, while the more the merrier, does the industry have the appetite to pay for multiple players?


So should the government/TRAI intervene?

This question doesn’t need a wordy response. The answer is simple. No. Let me repeat: No. Yet again: No. Nahin, Nako, Na, Illai….


Now what’s the current problem?

The government, via the TRAI, thought it would be a good idea to administer a new Tariff Regime for channel subscriptions. That one can pick and choose channels, a la carte. All of this has led to some upheavel in the availability of channels and millions of homes have now been subject to the non-availability of some popular channels. While the problem is not as severe for DTH subscribers, for those connected to cable operators (like this writer), things are not as simple.


Therefore, the viewership of many channels has been impacted with the change of regime. Since it typically takes four to eight weeks for life to settle down, various broadcast stakeholders decided that it would be incorrect to base buying decisions on the current set of numbers, and BARC decided that while it will give out viewership numbers to its subscribers, it will not publish them on its website or via Twitter.


TRAI wants BARC to publish on website?

We don’t really know why. The numbers on the BARC website are only very indicative, and are topline. Advertisers and agencies do not base their buying decisions based on these numbers.



If the website data is inconsequential, why raise BP levels… just go ahead and publish them!

True. But it’s got nuisance value. And if a channel has dropped its leadership position only because of some subscription issues, it’s unfair to make things public because they could be misused.


The questions posed in the headline and summary: Is TRAI justified in damning BARC? Conversely, is BARC right in showing the finger to the broadcast regulator?

No, TRAI isn’t justified. And, yes, BARC is right in showing the middle finger. But, but, but, BARC’s stakeholders must share the blame for the current stand-off. If they had resisted all the pressures earlier, they (and we) wouldn’t have suffered today.


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