Ratings Row: It may Finally be the Time for ‘Less is More’

15 Jan,2021

 

By Shailesh Kapoor

 

Early in the new year, there’s a potential storm building up in the television business. Mumbai police has filed its chargesheet in what is now being called the ‘TRP Scam’. This is no ordinary case. It can have far-reaching implications for the television business in 2021, 2022 and even beyond.

 

Ratings, as we all know, is the primary currency on which ad inventory trading is done in the television industry. Any question mark on the credibility of the ratings system puts a question mark on the currency. It doesn’t matter how many people are involved in the case, or data for how many channels was allegedly manipulated. What matters is that allegations of data distortion are in the public domain.

 

The Central Government has been largely silent about these developments, perhaps because the case is under the purview of a government from the Opposition. But in parallel, the Central Government has been issuing advisories related to measurement transparency, sample size robustness, etc. This twain shall meet. It’s inevitable. And when that happens, we may be in for some dramatic developments. Dare I say, a larger ratings blackout is not ruled out. If that happens, it may be a treacherous road ahead for the television business, especially given the healthy growth digital advertising is witnessing currently.

 

The television industry should take part of the blame for the soup it finds itself in. The obsession with ratings has been a constant feature of the sector over the last 25 years. While mass channels like entertainment and movies looking at ratings keenly is understandable, the obsession with ratings for niche genres, where the weekly time-spent by an average viewer (TSV) is in single-digit minutes, is amusing to say the least. At times, weekly changes that translate into 2-3 Peoplemeter homes are analysed in so much detail that you wonder if everyone actually understands the math behind it all in the first place.

 

Then there is the obsession about slicing the data to segments and sub-segments, e.g., 15-21 yrs. NCCS A in Mumbai. This is where the ratings agencies, current and those in the past, have faulted. By allowing liberal data cuts in the software, they have encouraged a culture of slicing and over-analysis. BARC India has been better on this front compared to its predecessor, limiting the geographical cuts within a state only for the bigger states. But it’s not enough.

 

Irrespective of how the ‘scam’ unfolds, some structural changes may be in order. All these years, the Indian TV ratings system has been constructed on the ‘more the better’ (and ‘faster the better’) premise. There was even a time when a lot of channels were keen on daily ratings. And who has forgotten the torture of pre-sunrise ratings updates till a decade ago?

 

From ‘more the better’, we need to shift the mindset to ‘less is more’. By less, one obviously doesn’t mean lesser sample size. One means lesser TG cuts, lesser parameters perhaps, lesser frequency of reporting for some genres, etc.

 

This shift requires a fundamental change of perspective. It will be unsettling for those who have built their entire careers on the ‘more the better’ premise. But in the long run, ‘less is more’ is the only sustainable solution for the industry. Let’s hope there are enough minds in the industry who are willing to endorse this idea.

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