For the next 12 weeks viewers will not see any news channel flashing on its screen, 'we are most watched network', 'we are most trusted network', 'we are India’s favourite News Channel', - so on & so on. The television rating measurement agency, BARC ( Broadcast Audience Research Council) will not be releasing any data pertaining to news channel viewerships. So, no TRP - Television rating Points, for the next 3 months. And hence none of the noise and cacophony that you saw on your screen will disturb your viewing pleasure. You will gravitate to the network that you like and trust, you shall watch what you desire and above all, all the theatrics which has today become the hallmark of News Channels will not be needed as there is no rush to grab the viewership.
To the layman, TRP is a dirty word. Its a lynching whip, which has often been used by people who believe, News is a serious business. The common man uses TRP as a tool to trash shoddy and over the top sensationalism dished out to TV viewers, in the name of News & Views. For TV News Editors, its a collar round your neck, which reminds you of your continued enslavement to mad rush for cheesy brownie points in front of the channel owners. The TV Editors have virtually end up becoming a pawn in the hands of frenzied tamasha dolled out as News. Let me quote, News Broadcasters Association (NBA) President, Rajat Sharma, "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 blog step of putting ratings of news genre on hold will help in improving content". Bold words from a Newscaster & channel owner who has been one of the longest serving TV journalists.
Mr. Sharma's words denote a growing undercurrent of strong opinion among major journalists, who have been at the receiving end of viewer anguish. When we proclaim, journalism as the fourth pillar of democracy, don’t we expect a minimum standards of social consciousness, political awareness, societal responsibilities and credibility. When any of these attributes is compromised, we know the people at large are being deprived of their rights and robbed off their bare expectations from journalism.
While, we can talk at length on fake news, abuse and toxic content on news channels, lets first focus on the disquiet on the TRP front.
The Mumbai Police Commissioner addressed a press conference lately to proclaim that ratings provided by BARC have been compromised. That a complain was filed by BARC and its contractual agency, HANSA over TRP manipulation. Basis the said complaint, a former employee of HANSA was arrested, a number of ‘Bar O Meter’ homes investigated and a deeper investigation has been initiated to uncover the corrupt practises in vogue to inflate and manufacture TV ratings aka TRP. That on the basis of such inflated TRPs, advertisements have been secure by news channels, which would again be construed as criminal break of trust and deception. The Mumbai Police Commissioner, named three news channels - Fakt Marathi, Box Cinema and Republic TV. Post this disclosure, the Mumbai Police has been interrogating officials of HANSA and Republic TV, while owners of Fakt Marathi and Box Cinema have been arrested.
Republic TV took this disclosure as a personal affront and carried a sustained campaign to prove that other networks were involved in TRP manipulation, while Republic TV was being framed for putting Mumbai Police in dock over Sushant Singh Rajput’s suicide. Amidst this raving and ranting, the bigger question that needed answer was how has the rating measurement system established by BARC collapsed. How did the manipulations go unnoticed for years. What happened to the internal scrutiny mechanism set up by BARC to identify anomalies and punish the manipulators. Let me again quote NBA President, Mr. Rajat Sharma, "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 here is much more at stake than just the measurement of new channels’ popularity. Indeed, a healthy and vibrant TV news industry is vital to Indian Democracy".
Let me in brief explain how far fetched and unrepresentative is the current TRP measuring process and extrapolation of viewership data.
When broadcasters started airing TV content, the parameter to measure their viewership strength had to be structured so that advertisers could plan their promotion on respective platforms. To facilitate the same, metering boxes were fitted in viewer home to understand the viewing pattern and also extrapolate the popularity of the channel. These boxes are today called, “Bar O Metre”. The data hence collected is extrapolated for the entire range of TV connected homes and a generic picture is presented which details the number of people who watch a channel (Viewership), amount of time they spend in watching a channel (Time Spend) and propensity to return to the channel viewed (stickiness). The same is further broken down to minute by minute and when taken together, a pattern emerges which suggests, which are the highly watched shows, what is their time spend and how the show contributes in the stickiness of the news channel.
Ideally, this is a fantastic arrangement. But in reality, the data is open to excessive manipulation, distortion and rigging. Why so?
BARC claims to have 44,000 'Bar O Meter' installed in homes all across the country and the data hence procured is projected over 850 million TV viewers to present a holistic picture. In practice it means a family of 4 or 5 ideally defines what over 5 lakh people would view on their TV sets. This projection in itself is hugely flawed.
Rather than distributing the 'Bar O Meter' universally across India, they are installed on the basis of density of population. So all metros have a much higher density of Bar O Meters than rural or semi-urban areas. And to further distort the data, Bar O Meters are placed in higher density in states where consumption is higher. So Maharashtra would have 2000 Bar O Meters installed while Bihar & Jharkhand taken together have less than 500 Bar O Meters. This again leads to massive distortion in data hence received. Here I would like to point out that Uttar Pradesh and Delhi taken together represent 30 - 35 per cent of viewership data. Yes, just two states have 30 - 35 per cent weightage in the data provided by BARC.
To provide weightage to rural viewership, BARC has placed 40 per cent Bar O Meters in semi-urban and rural areas. These boxes have been placed on Free to air platform offered by Doordarshan and local cable networks. While the thought is noble to give proper representation of viewers, the element of manipulation, assumes massive proportions.
Let me elaborate.
When a ‘Bar O Meter’ is placed in a home, a contractual agreement is reached between the survey agent, in BARC’s case - HANSA, and the home owner. The home owner would watch TV channels as per his choice, for the duration he desires. The home owner will not disclose the presence of ‘Bar O Meter’ to any one. And for the said service, the home owner will get a fixed sum of money. As has been brought to light by Mumbai Police, for a consideration of 400 - 500 rupees, home owners were being tutored to watch a news channel for a pre-fixed duration. If a particular News Channel is able to influence over 200 to 500 such homes, can you imagine the difference in its viewership. An influence on 500 homes means an enhanced viewership of about 25 lakhs. For any News Channel to get an additional 25 lakh viewer in different time slot in totality would garner average of 3 - 4 per cent market share of the news pie. Such a huge fluctuation would result in any manipulative channel gaining unparalleled dominance in the highly contested market where News Channels are fighting each other by 1 per cent margin.
It is precisely this manipulation that is the bone of contention.
Also the placement of Bar O Meters is also questioned as vast majority of these boxes have bee out up in homes, which are not aware and literate viewers. As was found in Mumbai by the police, the home owners who were being manipulated belonged to the poorer section of the society. While they couldn’t even read or write, their viewing of English News channels was deciding the fate of 6 English News Channels. I am not being raised, but for heavens sake, does this meet logic. Likewise, Hindi news channels are open to manipulation from cities like Chennai, Bengaluru, Guwahati, Asansol, Cuttack or states like Tripura, Manipur, West Bengal, Kerala etc.
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Clearly, there is a huge disconnect in the entire data collection and extrapolation system of BARC. Its is these loopholes which are today being exploited by vested interests and the viewer is being robbed off his choice.
This doesn’t stop here. Lets examine the monetary rip off. Advertisers plan their campaigns basis rating provided by BARC. The total TV Ad spend in about 45,000 crore. Of this about about 5000 - 7000 crore ad spend comes to News television. The difference between the rates commanded by top 3 news channels with the rest is about 70 per cent. So, if number 1 news channel commands a price of Rs 5000/- per 10 seconds for commercials a number 7 channel would at best seek a price of Rs. 800/-. This pricing dynamics is enough to explain the mad rush to make it to the top and corner the major advertisement pie. However, if the ratings by themselves are rigged, then its not just the viewer who is being cheated, its the advertiser too, who is being robbed off his money.
In effect, a few manipulating bad eggs, not just destroy edifice of Journalism, they actually act as crooks. While exemplary action must be taken against those indulging in TRP manipulation, it is incumbent upon BARC to complete flush the system out of all its flaws. TRP should the representation of people’s choice, their appreciation of News and their expectation of News from TV channels. TRP can’t become a tool in the hand of corrupt to propagate falsehood, negativity, fake narratives and distortions. It is hence this pause and rethink of BARC is most welcome.
(Writer of the article, Ajay Kumar, is Consulting Editor, India TV)
(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The opinions do not reflect the views of India TV)