Shailesh Kapoor: Whose Ratings Are They, Anyway?

13 Nov,2020

 

By Shailesh Kapoor

 

The last few weeks have seen eruption of a fresh debate around television ratings. Before the formation of BARC India, ratings-related controversies in the TAM era were frequent, and different broadcasters, at different times, expressed their discontentment privately and publically, with some like NDTV even taking the legal route. When the currency shifted to BARC India in 2015, these debates expectedly became less frequent. The key difference, of course, was that BARC India is an industry body, and not a private organisation like TAM.

 

For the last five years, despite stray voices and uncalled-for government interference, there has been an overall sense of calm around TV ratings in India. But trust 2020 to challenge the status quo. One concern after the other, the ratings system has come under the scanner again in recent weeks.

 

It started with BARC India’s decision to use an algorithm to remove the impact of landing pages on viewership. This evidently-controversial decision has not gone down well with several news broadcasters. Even as we await the unfolding of this contentious piece, the Peoplemeter-tampering controversy came to the fore, wherein the Mumbai police charged certain news channels, most noticeably the Republic TV network, of breach.

 

In a large, pan-India panel that’s being managed manually at the last mile, some Peoplemeter homes being compromised is not such a surprising development. It’s bound to happen once in a while, and a swift and decisive response it all that such incidents needs, on behalf of BARC India.

 

But such incidents bring the topic up in the media, and we know that questioning voices don’t worry much about facts and details anymore. By suspending channel-level ratings for the news genre, BARC India has, in effect, admitted there’s a need to get things in order. And that can, arguably, be called a constructive decision.

 

t the events of the last two months have worked as a perfect trigger for the ever-eager I&B ministry and TRAI to step in. Last week, the ministry constituted a four-member committee to review the existing guidelines on television ratings agencies in India.

 

The government’s interference in the television industry can be exasperating for any sane mind that has the industry’s best interest at heart. Under the excuse of protecting consumer interest, TRAI has interfered repeatedly by setting the price points and guidelines regarding pay TV subscription. Why TV industry even comes under TRAI is a larger question in the first place. But even if one ignores that by seeing TRAI and the I&B ministry or any other such body as a generic entity called the Government of India, the interference is a blatant violation of the principles on which a free market operates. Why are cinema and live event ticket prices not regulated? I hope I’m not giving them more ideas to widen their interference net, but the Government could have done well to stay away from areas it has no business of being a part of. But that ain’t happening anytime soon. In fact, the latest development, that online news portals and the OTT category will come under the I&B ministry, is a new cause of concern.

 

The ratings committee has two months to put up its recommendations. Irrespective of how good a job they do of it, the direction in which this discourse is going is deeply problematic. It’s been a tough year for all industries, and television broadcasting is no exception. Hope some common sense prevails, and trigger-happy authorities stay away from shooting at will. Else, 2021 could spell some more trouble for the business. Trouble that, unlike the pandemic, is eminently avoidable.

 

 

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