One has always wondered why a discerning advertiser would want his product to be seen on news channels, especially the Hindi ones, drowning in all the slush that they call content. What value do premium products get out of their association with such trash?
It was thus with interest that one heard Milind Pant of Yum complain about the sameness of content on all channels. Pant, a big consumer of advertising space, was sharing the dais with CEOs of news channels on the concluding session of exchange4media’s NewsNext 2009 conclave. With him on stage were Barun Das (Zee News), Chintamani Rao (Times Now), G Krishnan (TV Today), Raj Nayak (NDTV) and Ravi Prakash (TV9) with Barkha Dutt as the moderator.
As the only one bringing the advertiser’s perspective to the panel packed with news channel CEOs, Pant bemoaned the absence of differentiation among channels. He was indicating that if you removed the logos, you wouldn’t be able to tell one channel from the other. With no content differentiation, the advertisers had no option but to put their bets on the questionable TAM ratings mechanism for estimating reach and popularity of channels.
Now, if there is anybody the news channel heads would listen to carefully, it is the advertiser; he is the only guy supplying them that life-sustaining substance called hard cash. Here was an advertiser telling all the CEOs that they had failed in their basic job of brand-building, so one was keen to see how they responded. They didn’t, not until the first audience question from Rahul Dev, Editor of CNEB. He wondered why advertisers like Pant don’t keep away from channels that show trash and told him point-blank: “If all the advertisers come together and decide as one to boycott these channels, they will be forced to correct course in single day,” said Rahul.
It was a rhetorical question, based more in pain than in reality. It was bound to appeal to the gallery and it did. Loud applause followed. But surprise, surprise, even the panel of CEOs enjoyed the discomfiture of the cornered advertiser and actually joined the applause! Not just that, Raj Nayak pounced on the tribe called the media planner (who advises the advertiser where to place his ads). “Most media planners don’t even have a TV set in their offices, they don’t catch TV at home and they have no clue what is happening,” he riled. The point he was making being that the media planner blindly follows the TAM figures and the advertiser blindly takes his word.
Other CEOs, except Barun Das, nodded in vehement agreement.
It was a strange argument. It almost seemed like they were looking at the advertiser now to rescue them from the crisis of content in their offices. The CEOs were faulting the advertisers for not asking content questions. They were questioning the advertiser’s wisdom of taking as gospel the TAM ratings to which they themselves pay obeisance to every Wednesday!
But Pant was not the only one to be beaten down by the CEOs. Up until Rahul asked that question, the CEOs had spent the better part of the hour defending the same TAM ratings.
That happened because Ravi Prakash said that the TAM method was questionable, the meters were too few, they obviously seemed to be placed in households with little literacy and hence, that reflected in the TRPs each week, making everybody a prisoner of pulp content. “We keep talking about how we do not want a content regulator, but there is already a content regulator sitting on our heads: TRPs,” said Ravi.
Krishan and Chintamani pounced on Ravi, the only CEO who seemed to be in mood for some introspection (which is what such conclaves are supposed to do). They trashed his suspicions of the TAM methodology with, I must admit, logic. “It is not like Aaj Tak is number one all the 52 weeks. For a few weeks in the year, it loses its position. The fact that there is so much change means that the TAM ratings are indicative of what’s happening on the channels,” argued Krishnan. Chintamani agreed: “It has never happened that we did something well, expected it to do well in ratings and it did not reflect in the TRPs,” he argued as some in the panel went into denial claiming that they never worried about TRPs when making their news lists!
Both Ravi and his detractors are right. Yes, the TRP monster hangs over the head of every editor and CEO whether they admit it or not, and yes, the ratings seem to be largely indicative of a channel’s content strength. But the catch here is: content of the saanp-sapera, Rakhi Sawant, cricket, crime and Bollywood variety is a sure-shot, instant success at the TRP box office. Additionally, it is easy to manufacture without straining the brain or draining the resources. While content of the sensible, responsible variety needs investment of time, energy, intelligence, resources and patience. You have to invest in it over time and it pays only in the long run.
But TRP is a weekly game. So most channels take the easy route to success and TAM takes the brunt of the blame. And along with TAM, the cable operator who charges obscene amounts of money to carry each channel (who, may I ask, created this monster but the channels themselves) and now even the poor advertiser is a culprit for not changing the course of content over which he has no control. Everybody, just about everybody other than the channels themselves is responsible for the sad plight of content!
After all the advertiser-bashing, Barun brought a semblance of balance: “It is not the advertiser’s job to course-correct the channels. If things are going wrong it is for us to change course,” he said.
Instead of hoping that all the advertisers will come together one day and force the channels to clean up content, how about trying this easier way out: why can’t all the channels come together and banish the trash? Even though TV news is young, learning, evolving and all that, at age 11, it is time we learnt to clean our own poo.