Comment: The Suspension of News Ratings

21 Oct,2020

 

By Sundeep Nagpal

 

At the outset, let me state that this piece is not meant to comment on whether or not there have been any malpractices in the TRP measurement process. Nor is it designed to be an opinion on whether any channel is guilty of abetting such unscrupulous practices or not. It is not my role to comment on this aspect. That’s the job of the law-enforcers and the fact that there is an FIR on this, certainly suggests that there could be a serious problem. Most importantly, given that some skeletons may still tumble out of the cupboard, as we are seeing in the course of the daily investigations, it’s too early for anyone to pronounce judgment.

 

So, what is this article about? It’s meant to lend a perspective on various aspects of the issue at hand. And it is being written purely on the basis of my experience as a media professional, who not only uses data to allocate brand advertising budgets to channels, but also as someone who has worshiped data, trained no less than a thousand individuals on its utilisation and strongly propagated its application in the decision making process, even to advertisers, for over three decades now.

 

For a media professional, all it would take is a keen sense of observation and some common sense to read between the lines, to understand the reality.

 

So, here are the aspects that are being addressed in this piece.

 

Aspect No 1: The Suspension of News channel ratings, for upto 12 weeks, apparently for them to clean up the mess?

 

Aspect No 2: Did someone say, that this a scam, and that too of the order of Rs. 30,000 crore… seriously?

 

Let’s talk about the First Aspect:  The suspension of the News channel ratings, for upto 12 weeks, ostensibly to clean up the field issues in data collection.

 

There could be three possible reasons for this:

1. As claimed by a faction of news channels, there have been frequent and inexplicable fluctuations in the ratings of some news channels, and that ought to be examined and corrected, in case there are measurement flaws (In fact, in this context, readers would recall, that recently, the sudden growth in viewership of a wild card Hindi news channel, had become a big bone of contention, and this was vehemently debated by both sides, without any significant outcome. By now, perhaps the ratings have stabilised – as evident from the graphs). So, viewership fluctuations have been a way of life for media planners to contend with.

2. Secondly, given the dust storm that has risen on news channels, another unstated consideration for this temporary suspension, could possibly be to let the dust settle on this matter, and until such time, to adopt some interim measure to avoid any further controversies, and mitigate the risk.

3. This tussle between the state machinery on the one hand, versus the controversial network on the other, is only likely to bolster the network’s viewership, (yes, let’s not forget that the majority of viewers, regardless of how they’re inclined, just tend to get excited about such developments), and that may actually happen at the cost of some of the network’s competitors.

 

So, one faction of news channels (called the NBA – which comprises mainly of the said network’s competitors), has been very vocal about supporting this move of temporary ratings suspension. Whereas the other faction, called the NBF – which comprises of he said network and several other regional networks, is dead against this temporary embargo. In fact, last Thursday, NBF released a statement to the effect that ratings agency, BARC has been unfair by singling out the news genre, for an overhaul, and that it was done without any consultation with its member channels and that other genres are equally fraught with anomalies, and hence are also in need of an overhaul, and therefore implying that all ratings should be re-examined, etc. etc. etc.

 

So, the fact that BARC has suspended the news ratings, even temporarily, can actually be due to any one or more of the above reasons, but this embargo in itself, can be looked upon as an admission of a systemic problem.

 

Now let’s talk about the Second Aspect: Rs 30,000 crore? Really?  Where did this number come from? Has any industry professional provided this figure or verified it? Can anyone substantiate and explain how it has been arrived at? Has BARC even hinted at such a large figure? Let’s understand, that Rs 30,000 crore is (probably less than the profit of Reliance Industries, but it is), still humongous, for anything to do with the advertising/ media business.

 

So, again, where did this number come from? Or is it that, after the various ‘Bad Boy Billionaire’ scams, the yardstick for any issue to be labelled as a scam, has suddenly increased to a few thousand crores, by default? Just so that it is taken seriously !

 

Hence the question here is not just as to what the general public is being told, but what lay persons end up believing !

 

There can only be two reasons for such a headline – it’s either a desperate attempt to grab audience attention (sensationalise) or it reflects the ignorance of the claim maker, about the reality of the BARC system, or perhaps, both !

 

As media/ marketing professionals, we must try to understand this: even if there is some malpractice about households (HHs) being paid to keep certain channels on, then how many such HH’s can make a significant difference to the viewership of the allegedly rogue channels? How much can some HHs in a single city, affect the national ratings of that channel? How much money would have to change hands to make a significant difference to the channel? And even if the viewership did rise, how much additional advertising could the channel in question attract, in return for this unscrupulous investment?

 

Moreover, if the viewership number did not rise sufficiently enough, would that channel retain the loyalty of its existing advertisers? In other words, do advertisers select every channel only on the basis of viewership? Or do other intangible factors, like content synergy and audience profile also have an important role to play, in the decision making process?

 

The answers to these questions are obvious.

 

Incidentally, the number of channels that are included/ covered by the system, are in excess of 400.

 

Also, the total amount of advertising revenue generated, annually, by all channels put together could be somewhere in the region of Rs 30,000 crore. (the exact number is not necessary here when we are only trying to understand the bigger picture)

 

So, by logical extension, any such claim that alleges a scam of Rs 30,000 crores, must necessarily imply that all (approx.. 400+) channels, have been indulging in this fraudulent and illegal practice, of artificially boosting their viewership ratings, by paying some amount of money to sample households (HHs), right through the last 12 months !

 

Now, for the mathematically inclined, here’s a small extension of this theory. Of the 44,000 sample HHs in the country, only about 2000 of them are in Mumbai. It’s impossible that all of these HHs could ever be paid off, in the above manner. So, as a ratio of the sample HHs all over the country, where viewership is being measured, to what extent can the viewership of these channels stand to gain, from this small allegedly rigged sample? In other words, how much can the TRP go up, even if the viewership in these few sample HH’s is artificially boosted?

 

So, the claim that this is scam of the order of 30000 crores, seems preposterous, given that so far, just three channels have been alleged to have indulged in it.

 

So, firstly the “scam”, if there is one, is probably not worthy of the magnitude of the hue-n-cry/ attention that it has generated so far. In my opinion, the newsworthiness of this entire ‘so-called scam’ (and I’m being objective, here), comes from other reasons, such as the controversial nature of the channel being implicated.

 

Another reason for this, is that this is really not the first time ever that such a malpractice has come to light. There were at least two similar instances in the distant past, which were curtailed and rectified in a short time. And so, hopefully, so would this.

 

Further, consider this. Do advertisers, media planners, marketing professionals rely only on TRP data for their decision-making? Don’t they understand the limitations of the data collection methodology? Surely there’s got to be some way in which their experience and first-hand feel/ non-data related expertise, come into play?

 

It is also my humble opinion that any media analyst, worth his salt, understands when and where not to apply the data, in the decision-making process, and how to make the decision on other, less tangible/ non-tangible factors.

 

It is my strong belief and contention that niche/ special interest channels, from genres such as English Entertainment/ English News/ Lifestyle/ Infotainment or even the Children’s channel genre, mostly do not attract advertising based on their viewership estimates. These channels are chosen by advertisers primarily based on their content and profile, which need not deploy the use of any data.

 

This aspect can further reduce the intensity of the issue at hand, (for whatever has unfolded up to this point in time, unless more skeletons come out from the cupboard later).

 

So, given the above two aspects – the question that arises is, why such a brouhaha over ratings? If there’s even a shadow of doubt on the field practices, then just correct those, why suspend the release of the ratings in the public domain, …. unless of course, there is enough evidence that the disease has reached pandemic levels.

 

Ultimately, I believe, that no matter how superficial audiences may be, w.r.t their understanding of somewhat technical issues, they are not idiots. Their ability to connect the dots and come to their own conclusions, about the underlying causes of this issue, must not be undermined.

 

Because, obviously, these developments are more than what meets the eye. It’s not just a question of news channel ratings, but it’s a no-holds barred business warfare between channels, and the Kurukshetra (battlefield) is not just the TV news arena, but in fact, a larger political arena as well.

 

Some media professionals must believe that this entire TRP saga makes about as much difference to their jobs, as a drop of cyanide in the Atlantic (whereas it is being made out to disrupt marine ecology). All the same, true professionals (journalists or media planners), ought to be more concerned about how to retain and enhance the credibility of our own role / effort. But are we doing any better than the lay viewer ? We’re only being a little more than innocent bystanders, coz, we’re also basically just watching the drama unfold.

 

Satyameva Jayate !

 

Sundeep Nagpal is a veteran media profession and Director, Stratagem Media Pvt Ltd,  an independent media specialist firm, in the business for nearly three decades. His views here are personal

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