Ratings Bandh! BARC to stop releasing viewership data for individual news channels

15 Oct,2020

 

By Pradyuman Maheshwari

[updated with News Broadcasters Federation story link]

 

Ring-a-ring-a Ratings,

A mess-up full of claims,

Yeh Dishoom, Yeh Dishoom!

We all fall down

 

Pardon this hurriedly written parody of everyone’s favourite nursery rhyme by a friend. But kya karein. C’est la vie.

As we wrote last week, ask anyone associated with the television broadcast business, and they’ll tell you how news channels are the Indian television measurement business’ Achilles’ heel. However advanced the measurement craft, successive regimes in the TV measurement business have experienced testing times thanks to the mess dealing with the news business. Plus the penchant to run to the government, and complain. “Uncle, uncle, see this guy is acting very funny.” Not funny at all.

It happened with the previous ratings body TAM. NDTV took it court, and that eventually led to TAM losing its measurement business, its mojo. And this despite all the might of then co-owners WPP and Nielsen.

Then BARC happened, it was all hunky-dory in the early days. NDTV was still not high on the ratings roster. But soon enough the news biggies started getting tough on the BARC bosses.

But we aren’t batting for BARC and TAM. Ask the newswallahs. They too will cite various reasons for being upset with things. With reason. After all when your ratings are low, despite the belief and in actuality you are doing a good job.

The final straw was the ratings controversy of last week. Mumbai Police Commissioner’s declaration that threw in Republic’s name for allegedly rigging ratings, and Republic’s expose of an FIR naming India Today.

Conventional wisdom would say that it’s not right to base stories on allegations by folks or FIRs. They are not based on any investigations and chargesheets. Or even court orders. But, darlings, that’s conventional wisdom. We are talking of the news business.

Over the last week, there is been a bloodbath. Unfortunately. Some media companies haven’t fallen short of anything. Arnab Goswami is being painted as Villain #1. There are many who don’t like his journalism. There are many who think he’s too pro-BJP and the Narendra Modi government. But then there are issues with many others too.

This report is not an attempt to list the kind of stories which news channels keep doing. And their editorial stance.

It’s about the decision that BARC has taken. In the light of the recent developments, the BARC Board has proposed that its Technical Committee (Tech Comm) review and augment the current standards of measuring and reporting the data of niche genres, to improve their statistical robustness and to significantly hamper the  potential attempts of infiltrating the panel homes. This exercise would cover all Hindi, Regional, English News and business news channels with immediate effect.

Therefore, starting with the ‘News Genre’, BARC will cease publishing the weekly individual ratings for all news channels during the exercise. This exercise is expected to take around 8-12 weeks including validation and testing under the supervision of BARC’s Tech Comm. BARC will continue to release weekly audience estimates for the genre of news by state and language. So no individual numbers.

Explaining the need for this move, Punit Goenka, Chairman of BARC India Board said: “Given the most recent developments, the BARC Board was of the opinion that a pause was necessitated to enable the industry and BARC to work closely to review its already stringent protocols and further augment them to enable the industry to focus on collaborating for growth and well-natured competitiveness”.

Added  Sunil Lulla, CEO, BARC India: “We at BARC take our role in truthfully and faithfully reporting ‘What India Watches’ with the greatest sense of responsibility and work with integrity to ensure that our audience estimates (ratings) remain true to their purpose”. He added: “Besides augmenting current protocols and benchmarking them with global standards, BARC is actively exploring several options to discourage unlawful inducement of its panel home viewers and further strengthening its Code of Conduct to Address Viewership Malpractice”.

Meanwhile, the News Broadcasters Association has welcomed the 12-week suspension of TV ratings. NBA, which represents a large section of news broadcasters – but not the entire universe of news channels, believes that the suspension is an important step in the right direction. [update: News Broadcasters Federation has opposed the BARC move. Please read: https://www.mxmindia.com/2020/10/daggers-drawn-nbf-opposes-barc-move-says-it-wasnt-consulted-on-ratings-pause]

Said Rajat Sharma, President, NBA: “Recent revelations have brought disrepute to the measurement agency and by extension the broadcast news media. The corrupted, compromised, irrationally fluctuating data is creating a false narrative on What India Watches and has been putting pressure on our members to take editorial calls that run counter to the journalistic values and ideals of journalism. The current atmosphere of toxicity, abuse and fake news is no longer tenable and NBA as the custodian and guardian of Indian broadcast media believes a bold step of putting ratings of news genre on hold will help in improving the content. For many years NBA has been highlighting its concerns about the veracity of TV viewership data, which have been prone to irrational fluctuations. Recent events have shown that there is much more at stake than just the measurement of news channels’ popularity. Indeed, a healthy and vibrant TV news industry is vital to Indian democracy. We expect that the period of suspension will be utilised to implement important reforms at BARC. To safeguard the integrity of viewership data, human intervention in its collection and processing must be totally eliminated. Data security, including encryption and restricting access to key information, must be ensured. Complaints, if any, should be dealt with in an independent and transparent manner. NBA also expects greater consultation and openness when important decisions are taken by BARC.”

What led to this? Loads of things. The last straw was the expose, the threat of government intervention, and the summoning of media agency network stalwarts for an intense conversation with the Mumbai. Madison World CEO Sam Balsara is said to have spent seven-and-a-half hours with the cops. IPG Mediabrands CEO Shashi Sinha and GroupM CEO Prasanth Kumar some 4.5-5 hours. All on Saturday, when many of us may have been taking it easy with a siesta.

So what happens now? You couldn’t have invested so much time reading this just to get the same stuff that’s on other platforms. It’s a win-win for everyone. But only prima facie. Channels that are doing well currently will be stay on top in terms of perception. So Advantage Republic TV and Republic Bharat. Not too much of a disadvantage for the others who are getting the revenues – like Aaj Tak and the other leaders of the pack. For those which are emerging or getting out of the woods, the absence of ratings is a setback.

That something needs to be done with the ratings has been spoken about by TAM and BARC in the past. LV Krishnan will tell you that. As will Partho Dasgupta. And now Sunil Lulla will as well. But folks like Goswami and some others are said to have been opposed to the idea. The leader after all wants it to be known that s/he is the leader.

And what does it mean for BARC? Some peace of mind. Messrs Lulla & Co can sleep those extra 10 minutes every day, and 20 on a Thursday, the day ratings are published. Also, as a wag said: Even if news channels were to go out of BARC’s measurement it would mean 10 per cent revenue gone but 90 per cent of the problems as well.

 

 

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