Peace or Perish!

09 Oct,2020

 

[updated with India Today Group quote & Republic TV statement]

By Pradyuman Maheshwari

 

Ask present and past TV audience measurement professionals who or what is pulling down the reputation of their business, the response would be an emphatic: news channels.

 

TAM, a joint venture of Nielsen and Kantar (then owned by WPP and now majority owned by Bain), lost its measurement contracts from broadcasters, advertisers and agencies thanks essentially to news channels warring against it. Premier news network NDTV took TAM to court over allegations of faulty data, and this hastened the effort to set up the joint industry owned body Broadcast Audience Research Council (BARC). Eventually TAM sold its measurement business to BARC.

 

Like TAM in the past, the BARC team faced turbulent times from the news channels, and in a letter to the BARC chairman Punit Goenka, the News Broadcasters Association (NBA) is said to have expressed its reservations about the BARC leadership of the past.

 

There are murmurs that BARC CEO Sunil Lulla too has experienced some angst from news channels.

 

The problem is always with ratings. That some of the channels have deep political connections makes matters worse. So every time there is a peeve, news channels flock to the I&B minister for intervention. In the past, matters have also gone to Parliament and there have been committees set up to examine nuances of the business. And if it’s not the law-makers who assert themselves, it’s regulator Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) which intervenes.

 

Frankly, the government ought not to have role in the business of news television. Except for running its own Doordarshan news channels, its publicity department DAVP which doles out advertising and monitoring objectionable content and addressing the media on issues and make announcements.

 

But by running to the government often, channel owners have invited the ministers and bureaucracy to step into a territory which they shouldn’t be treading on.

 

For instance, BARC’s weekly viewership data ensures that advertisers and the agencies make wise media buying decisions. It also helps broadcasters and content-makers better their content, sales and marketing act.

 

But the ecosystem dominated by broadcasters inflicted on itself the government’s intervention (or interference?) and got BARC to be governed by a set of rules and regulations.

 

There’s nothing new with what happened on Thursday. It occurred when TAM was around and it’s taken place under the BARC regime. There has been pilferage of information on the placement of set-top boxes, but the machinery is well-oiled to issue alerts when necessary.

 

That’s what happened when Hansa Research, one of BARC’s vendors on engagement with panel homes, alerted the police about a mess up.

 

Was Republic named in any written complaint? We don’t know. An FIR shared with MxM has a mention made of the India Today channel. Both Republic and India Today (by way of a report on the site) have presented their points of view.

 

What we did find last night was various channels shaming Republic TV and founder, editor-in-chief and managing director Arnab Goswami. Newspaper reports today – owned by media companies which also run news channels as well as a few others – have also named Republic and Goswami prominently. The reference to other channels and India Today has been understated or is missing.

 

So when did it all start? The war of words and ratings began even when Goswami was with Times Now. The channel was doing exceedingly well, on the back of the heated debates that it would air.

 

But when Goswami quit the Times Network to start Republic, the daggers were pulled out from all directions. All sides are to blame. Times Now had its issues with Goswami for quitting, hiring some ex-staffers and making no bones of the fact that he was taking on his former employer. The others got on to the act the moment Republic shot to #1 in the ratings roster. ‘News without Noise’, became India Today’s credo.

 

Various attempts were made to isolate Republic, including the rest of the news channels pulling out their watermarks so as to boycott BARC. On its part, Republic too countered the others – and compared its ratings with that of the others. Nothing wrong with it, except that the comparison was accompanied by much bombast. Surefire formula to rile others.

 

But the war took on a new turn when Goswami launched Republic Bharat. While English news channels are influential and earn fair monies, the real bucks is in Hindi news. Aaj Tak, ABP News, Zee News have been raking in the moolah over the years. While Bharat made its presence felt, it didn’t create much of a dent until the Covid-19 pandemic-led lockdown happened and the Arnab Goswami brand of hyper-aggressive, right of centre journalism took over.

 

And then came the controversy around actor Sushant Singh Rajput’s death. The line that Republic Bharat took on the controversy ensured it was numero uno. And not just for one week, but for now many weeks.

 

Advertisement buying decisions are not taken in a hurry, but buoyed by its success, Republic Bharat has hiked its ad rates.

 

On Thursday evening, the Mumbai police commissioner named Republic TV based on what appear to be unverified complaints and allegations. Later, on its primetime bulletin, Republic TV showed scans of the FIR naming India Today. The joint commissioner of police is reported on the India Today website stating that while India Today was named in the FIR, neither the accused nor the witnesses supported the claim. “On the contrary, the accused and witnesses are specifically mentioning the names of Republic TV…”

 

The India Today Group issued a statement late on Friday: “There is a malicious campaign on right now by a few vested interests to drag the name of the India Today Group into the TRP scandal that broke out on October 8, 2020,” adding: “We welcome any probe the police may wish to conduct and are fully confident that we will come out unscathed as we have not acted in any inappropriate manner. What we have right now is nothing but malicious, unsubstantiated allegations by a vested party.”

 

Republic TV has taken on the Maharashtra government and Police Commssioner Param Bir Singh over the last few months in Sushant Singh Rajput case. Meanwhile, Goswami has threatened to sue Singh.

 

So what next on this? The news channels business in India is a divided house. There is the News Broadcasters Association (NBA) which comprises most of the big players operating nationally and there’s News Broadcasters Federation (NBF) which is spearheaded by Goswami and Republic. Recently TV9 pulled out of the NBA with the association lodging a complaint with BARC saying that the network had used unfair means to forge ahead on the ratings roster. The network is now back as its member.

 

Singh was quoted on a channel saying that advertisers may also be called for interrogation. So will Amul managing director R S Sodhi have to make the rounds of the commissioner’s office? Perhaps he will be. Will media agency network bosses Prasanth Kumar of GroupM and Shashi Sinha of IPG Mediabrands also be questioned by the cops? If Sodhi is, surely Kumar and Sinha will be called in.

 

It suits the government perfectly well to have channels warring each other. But if the police summons advertisers and agency bosses for questioning, there could be trouble. Large, pedigreed advertisers would prefer to stay away from the murky world of news television. Channel owners would do well to smoke the piece pipe.

 

If warring countries and corporates can get together, surely Arnab Goswami and Rajdeep Sardesai can.

 

Updates:

 

Media agency bosses Sam Balsara, Shashi Sinha and Prasanth Kumar have been called to the police station for seeking information. So these may not be summons, but a request from the cops is never for a chat about the weather. There are rumours that names of certain advertisers have also been handed over to the police.

 

The Republic Media Network has issued a press release: https://www.republicworld.com/india-news/general-news/full-news-release-from-republic-media-network.html. “The Republic Media Network has approached the Honourable Supreme Court of India. We have served notices of our legal action to the Maharashtra Government as well. While we will follow the law, we are determined to seek a legal remedy against this atrocious witchhunt,” the release says.

 

 

Although Pradyuman Maheshwari is Editor-in-Chief and CEO of MxMIndia, the views here are personal and are not necessarily that of MxMIndia. He can be reached via Twitter at @pmahesh. A version of this has also appeared on The Wire at The ‘TRP Scam’ Could Open the Doors for the Government to Enter the Picture

 

 

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