TRP manipulation: Court takes cognizance of CBI charge sheet against former BARC CEO

There is documentary evidence on record which states that there were instructions from Lulla to the subordinates of measurement science to explore changes in the data of India Today.
Image for representational purpose only.
Image for representational purpose only.

NEW DELHI:  A special court in Lucknow has taken cognizance of the CBI charge sheet against former BARC CEO Sunil Lulla in connection with alleged manipulation in viewership data to bring down India Today channel from number 2 to number 3, officials said.

In its charge sheet, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) has alleged that viewership data of India Today was manipulated by the Broadcast Audience Research Council (BARC) in 2020, bringing it down from position two to three on the instructions of Lulla, who had termed it a "business decision", they said.

"The CBI has concluded that the manipulation of TRP data can be at two levels -- at household levels through broadcasters, that is, TV channels approaching households where bar-o-metres are installed and asking them to watch a particular channel, or by the BARC officials at its Mumbai office where the viewership data lands on its servers from the bar-o-metres installed in selected households of the country," the court noted citing the CBI findings.

The probe agency has carried out an exercise to detect manipulation at the household level by TV channels, but could not succeed in reaching any particular person approaching the households to influence them to watch any particular channel, it said.

The agency admitted that it has looked into the second probable area where manipulation is possible and has unearthed an instance where there is direct interference with the data on the instructions of the CEO, BARC, it said.

"The oral statements and the documents annexed with the final report have established and raised reasonable doubt that there is manipulation in the data of BARC at the Mumbai office before releasing of the data.

There is documentary evidence on record which states that there were instructions from Lulla to the subordinates of measurement science to explore changes in the data of India Today on April 29, 2020," the court noted.

It said there is "oral and documentary" evidence of the subordinates following Lulla's instructions.

"By doing this, the BARC has brought down the position (of India Today) from 2 to 3," the court said while taking cognizance of the charges against Lulla under IPC sections 406 (criminal breach of trust), 420 (cheating), 465 and 468 (both related to forgery), and 477-A (falsification of accounts).

"BARC collects data from a sample of households across the country using specially installed metres to give viewership ratings of channels operating across the country, directly impacting the advertisement revenue generated," the CBI has said in its charge sheet.

According to the standard operating procedure at BARC, when some households having viewership data collecting metres indulge in mala fide behaviour, they are quarantined for investigation and flagged under "vigilance issue".

If the manipulation is detected, they are replaced or discarded, which results in a change in data for all channels, it said.

"Mr Sunil Lulla has been a high-integrity professional in his entire career and has an unblemished track record.

His conduct has been as per BARC policies and procedures, and all the allegations made against him are totally false.

"We have complete faith in the rule of law and the courts," a spokesperson of Lulla had said in a statement.

In a recently filed charge sheet at the Lucknow special court, the CBI has alleged that on April 29, 2020, Chief of Measurement Sciences, BARC Derrick Gray "received instructions" from Lulla to "explore change" in the viewership data or TRP of India Today channels relating to Bengaluru before its release, according to the report seen by PTI.

Gray told Lulla that any change in the data of any TV channel could "only be done" if there is evidence against a channel in respect of -- obtaining household information, attempting to bribe viewers, trying to bribe BARC staff -- but none of them applied on the India Today channel as per statistics.

Gray, however, passed on the instructions to Market Analytics Team, and his team prepared two scenarios for the period, which shows that viewership data of India Today was brought down from actual position 2 to position three without any "evidence or data in support", the CBI has alleged.

"The two scenarios were put up to Lulla, but it was conveyed by Gray that it would be difficult to put India Today channel into vigilance as the same was not backed up by statistical data.

But Lulla approved one of the scenarios justifying it based on 'business decision'," the charge sheet has alleged.

Despite objections by Gray that the change in data could not be statistically proven because it was not based on any vigilance alerts, Lulla gave this change the name of "business decision", which has no place in the Standard Operating Procedure Manual (Research) of BARC, it alleged.

The CBI has alleged that while vigilance alerts were received against several channels, no separate scenarios were prepared against these channels.

However, in the case of India Today, where there were no vigilance alerts, two distinct scenarios were prepared, and its ratings were brought from number 2 to number 3.

According to the manual of BARC, the data received from households "cannot be altered" except when the data being received fails to meet any "logical explanation" and is "discarded".

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