Guest Column Retrofit: So, who is numero uno?

Guest Column Retrofit: So, who is numero uno?

Author | Sandeep Bamzai | Wednesday, Nov 12,2008 6:12 AM

Guest Column Retrofit: So, who is numero uno?

Banquo's ghost came back to haunt the readers of Delhi's English dailies last week and how. The day Obama won, both the top English dailies in the capital - The Times of India and Hindustan Times - went overboard in the top half, but more significantly, below the fold, they ran stories proclaiming that they were the numero uno in the city. They also thanked the readers for reading their respective newspapers. Curious? Well, obviously, for this was a throwback to the earlier years of the new Millennium, when both groups shouted from the rooftops about their primacy in the Rajdhani.

This was the most bruising battle fought in the homes and streets of Delhi with TOI initially playing the price warrior and gaining ground on the leader in the Capital for generations - HT. Most interestingly, this slugfest deepened and widened the Delhi English newspaper market in an hitherto unseen and unheard of manner. For years, HT was the undisputed leader in Delhi. In fact, HT was a synonym for Delhi. And just as TOI was the Old Lady of Bori Bunder and at the top of the Mumbai pyramid, HT had held a similar position in Delhi.

But as TOI began to get more aggressive - first seizing Bangalore, then Pune, and now running The Telegraph extremely close in Kolkata - it began to up the marketing ante in Delhi. The focus was PLUs - people like us - in the more urban South Delhi. Resident editors were tried and discarded, stratagems devised and thrown aside, till the winning formula by striking a chord with the resident welfare associations came about. Macro gave way to micro as Jaideep Bose and Arindam Sengupta went hell for leather zeroing in on civic issues, city-specific legalese like Jessica Lall, Upahaar tragedy and Priyadarshini Matoo; crime and grime and saturation coverage of the big ticket breaking events. Inflection point had been reached by touching the hearts and minds through strong campaigns. Mistakes were made, clarifications carried, but the strong charge helped TOI displace HT as the voice of the Capital. Around the same time, HT lost the plot as it gave up space. Metro coverage, its strongest point for years, got diffused.

The Indian Readership Survey (IRS), National Readership Survey (NRS) and the ABC were different benchmarks used in this defining newspaper battle. TOI somehow or the other kept its nose ahead in all this clutter. And then suddenly, all this died down after virulent attacks by one on the other on the front pages announcing their respective suzerainty. Then the confusion and dust settled and people forgot the rivalry. The rivals even closed ranks against the interloper - Mail Today - joining hands to develop a joint venture tabloid titled Metro Now. But with Metro Now itself not gaining any traction, barring the model Gitanjali Nagpal story, the rivalry seems to have been renewed.

TOI in its story claimed that the new methodology used by IRS had placed it as number one in the Capital, followed by Navbharat Times at two and HT at 3. HT, meanwhile, similarly shouted that it was No. 1 in the metro, as also the fastest growing paper in Mumbai. So, who is right and why are we revisiting this confusion? The reality is that the English readership market has grown manifold in the Delhi. Many moons ago, when HT was the undisputed leader in the Capital, it had sold 370,000 or thereabouts, while TOI was a mere 70,000-odd. Earlier, there was a time when HT claimed that its circulation was twice that much the combined circulation of all the English papers in Delhi. That was the power of HT in northern India. Now, HT and TOI sell anywhere between 800,000 and 900,000 each. These are serious numbers, for it means that just between the two papers, they sell over 1.7 million copies every day. So, with HT having thrown down the gauntlet at TOI by questioning the veracity of its claim of being No. 1, life in the fast lane will only get faster, read confusing. In fact, one hears that the HT editorial even celebrated by cutting cakes.

Shouldn't then one believe net paid circulation as the only standard? But the controversy got stoked only because TOI stayed out of ABC and used IRS and NRS to browbeat HT. HT used the gold standard of ABC to hit back at TOI. And the battle continued. Now with IRS once again being used by both claimants, I wonder whether both groups are part of ABC currently. This is the gold standard in newspaper circulation wars. This is the only way to determine who the leader is and whether he actually guards the reader. Net paid sales is the only determinant, unless a new standard is created by the Indian Newspaper Society. But I doubt that.

A similar joust is underway in television. And the TAM Peoplemeter ratings have also been contested in the past by Zee TV, when it found that Star Plus's KBC and the Saas-Bahu sagas had tripped it. They were fiercely contested by Zee, but to no avail. So-called scams were unearthed, but the advertisers did not seem to buy in, and that at the end of the day is the lobby that matters in the media and entertainment verticals. Now, Zee has resurrected the call for TAM ratings to be investigated because the Indian Cricket League is not getting enough traction with the advertisers vis-à-vis IPL and Sony Entertainment Television. More importantly, with Murdoch having jumped into the fray with Champions League telecast rights, there is bound to be more pressure on the rebel league. Now, Zee has once again opened a debate on TAM and its ratings, seeking a quantum of solace from the deviations by issuing a notice to TAM Media Research. TAM has answered this by saying it is a content neutral system. Will the broadcast regulator TRAI, already in the line of fire over spectrum, stand up and take notice?

(Sandeep Bamzai is a well-known journalist who started his career with The Statesman in Kolkata in 1984. He has held senior editorial positions in some of the biggest media houses in three different cities - Kolkata, Mumbai and New Delhi - with The Indian Express, Illustrated Weekly, Sunday Observer, Dalal Street Journal, Plus Channel where he ran India's first morning business show on Doordarshan, The Times of India Group, Business India, Hindustan Times and Reliance Big Entertainment. Starting his career as a cricket writer, he graduated to becoming a man for all seasons under Pritish Nandy, who he considers as the premier influence on his career. Since he studied economics at Calcutta University, Bamzai decided in 1993 to branch out into business and financial journalism. Familiar with all three media, he is the author of three different books on cricket and Kashmir.)

Also read:

Retrofit: The wheel always comes full circle

Retrofit: Direct-to-Home, on the indirect route

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