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News channel investigators are now the accused

BARC tried to make the system more robust by boosting the number of sample homes from the old, narrow base of just 12,000 to currently 44,000 homes.

Published: 18th October 2020 08:01 AM  |   Last Updated: 18th October 2020 08:01 AM   |  A+A-

News

For representational purposes

It’s ironic that the news broadcast industry, falling over itself to rip the dirt under the feet of Bollywood and so many other ‘villains’, is now itself in the dock on charges of manipulation of audience data, popularly known as TRPs (television rating points).Over the last week, following complaints by Hansa Research, the agency that collects and processes TV audience data, the Mumbai Police Commissioner Parambir Singh has said Republic TV and two regional Marathi channels had been boosting viewership numbers illegally. The 4-5 employees of Hansa Research arrested by the police spilled the beans: homes who had the monitoring panels of who watches  — called bar-o-meters — had been paid to keep their TVs on a few select channels to boost ratings. 

This was one of the issues when the older TAM Peoplemeter System that recorded Television Viewership Ratings (TVRs) was replaced in 2010. The new rating agency, Broadcast Audience Research Council (BARC), was promoted by the TV broadcasters — the Indian Broadcasting Foundation (IBF), and the nodal advertising body Advertisers and Advertising Agencies of 
India (AAAI).

amit bandre

BARC tried to make the system more robust by boosting the number of sample homes from the old, narrow base of just 12,000 to currently 44,000 homes. But now, following the raging controversy, BARC has announced that it is pausing its weekly audience ratings for 8-12 weeks till the system is cleansed. An obvious admission that the malaise of viewership manipulation refuses to go away.

OLD MALAISE
The problem of viewership manipulation is as old as private television, since it launched in mid-1995 in the country. The whistleblower is usually the TV network that is not the leader in the race. In 2000, after Zee TV began losing ground to both Star Plus and Sony, a Zee associate, Ashok Kurian of Ambience Advertising, released lists of ‘Peoplemeter Homes’ that could be purchased off the shelf. These sample homes could then be persuaded to watch certain channels for a fee. Investigation by the Mumbai Police was launched, and arrests followed. With time, the controversy died away. 

More recently, BARC was in the eye of a storm over cable networks ‘fixing’ the system so viewers go directly to a specific channel. Called the ‘landing page’ manipulation, it was used by channels to boost eyeballs, BARC admitted. In a countermeasure last month, it introduced algorithms into its data validation method to curb the menace. But not before Times Now and others threatened to go to court.

The scramble for TRPs has to be understood in the context of advertisers almost entirely deciding on the channels they advertise based on the ratings or viewership the channel commands. As it is, news channels represent a small niche, just 8% of the total television universe. And it has come down from 11% a decade ago, which explains the desperation. Yet, surprisingly, of the 850-900 channels 
licensed by the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting (MIB), almost 400 are registered as ‘news channels’! 

THE BUSINESS OF NEWS

The revenue data is even more shocking! The broadcasting industry generates about Rs 35,000 crore annually from advertising. While entertainment and sports channels earn 15-20% of their revenue from subscription too, news channels are almost entirely dependent on ad revenue. Of the total ad pie, news channels get around just Rs 3,500 crore a year. And it is split between 350-400 channels! So here’s the deal. Many of the news channels are not business operations at all. Some of them are extensions of political parties that finance them. Others are influence seekers. 

The classic political equation can be best seen in Tamil Nadu. The DMK party finds direct support from the Sun TV network, founded in 1993 by Kalanidhi Maran, grand-nephew of party patriarch and founder M Karunanidhi. Cable distribution through Sumangali Cable Vision (SCV), also owned by the family, makes the controls tighter. AIADMK founder J Jayalalithaa did not even pretend she had any other agenda when she launched Jaya TV in 1999. Not to be outdone, the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) party’s S. Ramadoss floated Makkal TV in 2006; and when actor Vijaykanth entered politics in 2010, he had his own launch pad, Captain TV. 

Others have replicated the model too. In Punjab, the Akali Dal chief Sukhbir Singh Badal took control of a cable distribution network called Fastway Transmissions, which today dominates large swathes of Haryana, Himachal Pradesh and even Delhi. Others run channels as power brokers. For instance, in April 2013, Sudhakar Shetty, a small-time builder, and bar owner launched a regional Marathi news channel called ‘Jai Maharashtra’. It has little reach, and poor revenues, but it is still on air thanks to the liberal funding it receives. 

With BARC having suspended ratings for 2-3 months, now’s the chance to clean up. For starters, ratings for news channels should be suspended indefinitely till the new broadcast industry itself is cleaned up. Partho Dasgupta, former CEO of BARC, revealed to this writer he had called for suspending ratings for news channels 3 years ago, but nobody was listening.With sample homes for English news channels as low as just 500, what sense do ratings make? 

The Telecom Regulatory Authority (TRAI), also the regulator for broadcasting, had a few years ago recommended a ban on politicians and government bodies owning news media. It’s time to implement this. Meanwhile, Bajaj Auto and Parle Products have taken a bold decision to stop advertising on channels that spew ‘toxic and aggressive’ content. More should join them.

Rs 35,000 crore Revenue generated annually by broadcasting industry from ads .   

Rs 3,500 crore Annual revenue from ads for news channels.

8% Share of news channels now in total TV universe.



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