Shailesh Kapoor: Storm in a Chatroom

29 Jan,2021

Shailesh Kapoor

By Shailesh Kapoor

 

More than 1,000 pages. That’s how long the chat transcripts, which form a part of the supplementary chargesheet filed by Mumbai police in ratings manipulation case, are. The transcripts are from BARC India ex-CEO Partho Dasgupta’s WhatsApp records, and hence, features him in all the chats.

One could question if it was right on the part of Mumbai police to release private conversations in the public domain. But they have, and the material is out there for us to see. The media focus, understandably, has been entirely on the chats with Arnab Goswami. But a large portion of the 1,000+ pages across the two volumes feature chats with other BARC India employees, the most prominent of which is BARC India’s ex-COO Romil Ramgarhia.

If one focuses on the non-Arnab chats, there are three telling conclusions to draw:

 

1. Launched in a hurry?

There are enough indications in the transcripts that BARC India was not a settled, smoothly-running organisation. The processes, structure and people were being figured out on the go, even when the service had gone live and data was being reported. Perhaps there was a pressure to launch by a given date. But even till as late as 2019, four years after launch, there seems no sense of being settled.

One can see this as the inevitably of a start-up. But even start-ups find their footing with each passing year. It seemed BARC India was in a hurry, announcing new initiatives (like the now-aborted Ekam) even when the main purpose of the organisation (TV ratings) was nowhere close to running in a stable manner. There are chats on “non-currency revenue streams”, which makes one wonder if revenue considerations took away from the single-minded focus on delivering credible and authentic TV ratings.

 

2. Too many people to ‘manage’

It seems like a classic case of too many cooks spoiling the broth. Way too many stakeholders, ranging from constituent bodies like IBF, AAAI & ISA, to government arms like MIB & TRAI, to the BARC India board and its technical committee, to individual channels ready to stir things up every Thursday, to individual personalities in powerful positions, were on Dasgupta’s, and his team’s, manage-with-kid-gloves list.

It is difficult to say how much of this perception management approach to run the ratings agency is an inevitable nature of its construct, and how much of it was a result of a workstyle the CEO and  the COO decided to adopt. But almost all internal chats are about managing people and their perceptions. Someone or the other always seemed to be breathing down their necks. A body that should ideally maintain an arm’s length from interested parties, especially broadcasters, was doing anything but that. With the benefit of hindsight, one can say that this approach was doomed to fail.

 

3. Lack of confidence in the product

At many places in the chats, it’s evident that BARC India’s senior team members are tentative about their own panel design and data, and cannot decide whether to trust it or not. The entire outlier management exercise, which is a recurring theme in the chats, is projected as being necessary because of an inadequate panel size and/ or design, suggesting lack of confidence in the product.

The outlier management process itself comes across as arbitrary and subjective, with decisions being taken at a manual level, despite multiple mentions of the need to “automate” it.

In research, sample designs and reporting formats go hand-in-hand. If you do not have enough sample to report a data point with confidence, you may as well not report it. But it seems these decisions were not taken at the time of setting up BARC India, and there are multiple instances in the chats on how one or two peoplemeters in a particular market are resulting in ‘abnormal’ growth in a channel’s viewership in a particular week, to the extent of 200%+. Two weeks ago, I wrote here about why ‘less is more’ should be the new ratings doctrine. And these chats strengthen that argument a lot more.

 

Where do we go from here? BARC India has a new leadership team, and hopefully, a fresh approach too. The next year or two may see some chaos, but in the long run, the only practical way of making a ratings system work over an extended period of time is to ensure that only highly robust data is reported, and that the agency is given a free hand without any influence from the various power centres. The former is achievable. It’s the latter that worries me.

 

 

Shailesh Kapoor is Founder and CEO of Ormax Media. He writes on MxMIndia every Friday. His views here are personal.

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