The Ratings Tangle: All 3 Standpoints Converge into Nullity

20 Oct,2020


By Shripad Kulkarni


The current ‘scam’ on TV Ratings is suddenly primetime news, topic of newspaper editorials and has of course rattled the advertising and marketing industry a little. I want to look at this as a marketing communications industry event. For clarity, I will not be looking into the ethics of news journalism or the stance news channels have taken on India’s political affairs. These are very different discussions.


So, let’s look at the ‘event’ from three standpoints in the marcom ecosystem viz the research science behind it, the users of this data and the direct stakeholders in the event.


We will look at the research science behind it and its challenges and their implications. Next we look at the relevance and role in decision-making of this data for users. And thirdly, we will look at the direct stakeholders in play, the TV channels and the external regulatory system. We will logically examine the implications of this event from each standpoint.



 At the heart of the science (statistics) of a measurement system like BARC is a statistician’s nightmare. Let me elaborate on this nightmare. There are, as is often said ‘Many Indias’ from the rural land labourers to the Zoomers (born between 1997 and 2012). To cover these audience segments, the consumer classification system (which by the way, already needs a refresh) used by current research defines elaborately 12 segments.


In reality, this number is now multiplied manifold by the digital-led fragmentation of consumer video habits. It is impossible to be able to afford the sample size required to handle each of these segments adequately. It would take easily 10-15 times the current expenditure on research.  This is the statistician’s nightmare I am referring to. Naturally the scope and coverage of any audience measurement system will need to be restricted.


The current system, broadly speaking, compromises on the upscale audiences and focuses where Big Advertising Monies reside viz Mass Viewership Categories like General Entertainment Channels and Cricket. Hence even a relatively big viewership category like Hindi News gets a lower representation in sample. English News is quite unrepresented. This just cannot change anytime soon – surely not because of this event.


By simple deduction, the low sample size genres like News, stand to get massive ‘benefit’ with a slight tweaking of data. And since this is linked to the Revenues directly, every once in a while, it leads to a shot at gaming the system by some players. The current event is alleged to be this gaming of the system.


A good research system has adequate checks and balances, without which it can’t exist. The current system does have all these and more. So, what will happen to the research science of BARC after a fresh look? It may, at best, need a few more checks and balances. That’s about it. In effect nothing much will change from a Research Science standpoint.



Typically, a Media Planner is the key user of TV Viewership data and in close consultation with the Brand Manager, takes decisions on Channel selection. The user is concerned about lower representation in the sample for Genres and Target Groups she/he is interested in for the Brand/s handled. Where the sample size is lower, the user finds other logical data points to estimate the relevance or popularity of Media. One way is statistical ‘normalisation’ (average over a period is the simplest example). Other ways are content analysis, specialised surveys, social media analysis and listening. Most of the users are experienced and use TV on an ongoing basis, and also have adequate past experience to rely on. In the case of Hindi News, such additional logic-based datapoints are used for validation while for significantly lower sample size situations like say English News; they could get a higher weightage.


The Logical data points are even more important for the user when there is any consistent, significant change in the channel pecking order, like the rise of Republic TV Network in the recent past. And this change in ranking order of channels keeps happening every once in a while. Yes, sometimes due to fieldwork manipulation attempt, as is the allegation in the current case in point.


If there is some kind of manipulation, which is missed by the checks and balances of BARC, it somehow always shows up in the logical data points. So the experienced users does own adjustment for it. By and large, gains from such a manipulation are temporary and can’t beat both these systems for a long time, is the industry experience.


The current scam, and the plausible manipulation as a reason behind it, is pretty much what the experienced expert users have seen and handled a few times. Over and above what BARC will do to crosscheck and validate the news genre viewership, the user needs to take a rigorous fresh look at the logical data points. And needn’t do anything more.  So, again there will be no real change in the Users day-to-day life.



The media being measured are the biggest stakeholders here. In this case, however, there are also ‘external’ stakeholders due to the positions taken by News media vis a vis prevailing Political affairs. The outside stakeholders, by definition, will be involved for a temporary period. So when the dust settles, we will be left with only internal stakeholders.


Now let’s look at the channels. As a rule, if Channel A shows better numbers, and Channel B doesn’t, both will take opposing positions, no matter what. Given the checks and balances of the BARC system, at worst, a Channel or two might be guilty of manipulation. Since BARC is an Industry body, there will mostly be a technical committee, which will probe impartially. If there indeed is a malpractice not captured by the existing checks and balances system, a newer better system has to be in place with action against the Media concerned. If despite the corrections, the pecking order remains, nothing changes.


So, here again we pretty much arrive at the Nullity!



Full Disclosure: I have been a user of all Media Research since the days of scientific calculators, and also served on various Technical Committees of BARC and MRUC


*The concept of Nullity:

I have drawn from linear algebra the concept of Nullity, a vector with all Zero values. I would define Nullity in Marcom as an event, which is a necessity, forced upon the ecosystem by an external stimulus trigger. Such an event seemingly affects various stakeholders in the ecosystem. But, in the end, whichever standpoint you choose, there is no gain or loss for anyone in the ecosystem. In other words it’s a ‘Nullity’.



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