Mixed Media: Why MIB must junk some of the Amit Mitra committee’s recommendations on ratings

While some of the suggestions are welcome, crossholding restrictions on measurement firms are regressive, writes Pradyuman Maheshwari.

e4m by Pradyuman Maheshwari
Published: Jan 12, 2011 7:58 AM  | 5 min read
Mixed Media:  Why MIB must junk some of the Amit Mitra committee’s recommendations on ratings

If the Government were to accept all of the recommendations made by a committee it set to review television audience measurement tools, it could well be time for TAM Media CEO LV Krishnan to take some hard decisions on his 13-year-old research firm. For, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting-constituted committee has clearly indicated that TAM can’t be involved in the ratings business since it is part-owned by advertising conglomerate WPP. TAM incidentally was set up at the behest of a joint industry body in 1998.

One would’ve assumed that committee chair Dr Amit Mitra, who, as Secretary General of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI), has been running the annual Frames jamboree for many years, would have a good idea of the way the business of media is conducted. For, suggesting cross-ownership restrictions in media is as bizarre as saying that the government mustn’t run two transport corporations by way of the Indian Railways and Air India. Or closer home, The Times of India mustn’t be allowed to run Times Now or Radio Mirchi or an outdoor company or an events and activations outfit. Or a STAR India can’t have stakes in Tata Sky, Star Den and Hathaway.

But then, Mitra and Co had a task to do. Under pressure from all and sundry, the Government instituted a committee in May last year to determine a response to the cries that the current measurement tools are ineffective and that Government intervention must regulate them.

The unfortunate thing about Mitra’s task was that the very premise on which he was asked to submit his findings was flawed. For one, TRP is a measurement currency that is deployed by advertisers (directly or via its media buying agency). The advertiser in question doesn’t owe any explanation to the government or even the public for advertising in or sponsoring a certain programme. It could be a sound reason like a show’s popularity or just a whim. There is no way large spenders like Hindustan Unilever or Nestle or Micromax can be policed on their spends. They will do it the way they want.

Thankfully for all of us, buying decisions are generally not irrational. Though in the case of niche products (like print magazines, for instance), where prevailing measurement techniques don’t work, ad sales are indeed influenced by perception.
There is a discussion on how TRPs compromise content quality and how making the announcement of ratings less frequent could help. In fact, this is echoed by many broadcasters. My view is that the suggestion is outlandish because the advertiser has every right to know how its money is doing. And since our channel owners do not all have a magic potion on content, there is fair reason for aggressive monitoring.

Ratings are said to be the cause for influencing broadcasters to tweak serial storylines and news channels to sensationalise. There can never be more hogwash than this. Yes, news channels do opt for popular fare because that’s the kind of stuff that draws viewers. But that’s the nature of the beast. We all know that there is a fair amount of top quality content on Doordarshan, Lok Sabha TV and the like… how many of us watch them? Ratings are just an indicator of what people like to watch. And I don’t think the effect will be any different if the viewership numbers are shared once a fortnight, month or quarter.

Yes, there just 8,000-odd Peoplemeters from TAM and that number ought to increase. But will 30,000 Peoplemeters, as the committee says, be enough? I am sure that the same argument of whether the 30,000 number is truly representative of a billion-plus populace will be used then too.

But of course not all of what the Dr Amit Mitra committee has said is trash. For instance, the assertion that self-regulation (and hence not government-initiated) of TRPs is the best way to move forward is welcome. The committee has also said that the industry needs to move its feet on the setting up of BARC (Broadcast Audience Research Council). I like that Mitra has said that BARC must reorganise its Board and set up the high powered committee by June 2011 or face government intervention. There are also valid points raised about the need for all stakeholders to pay more for audience measurement if they are seeking an enhanced sample. The committee has recommended that the government reduce the 50 per cent import duty on Peoplemeters and has asked BARC to consider indigenous manufacture of measurement boxes.

I am a little concerned about the issue of transparency and the integrity of the data available. Surely, no research agency will want to part with the info on the people who have the boxes at home. While it’s true that broadcasters try their damnedest to indentify the homes with the boxes, I don’t think it’s all that simple. Also, from what I remember the TAM folk telling me, their intelligence network is strong enough, and if there is any issue on integrity, the sample is done away with in double quick time.

I am a little unsure on aMap’s ownership, and its officebearers weren’t the most cooperative with the information, so I don’t know if at all it will be affected by the crossholdings rule.

One hopes that there will some voice of reason at the MIB headquarters in Shastri Bhavan and some of the suggestions will be reviewed. If the Government is serious about quality audience measurement tools, then leaving it to the industry’s brainstrust would be the ideal solution.

(The views expressed here are my own. Post your comments below or mail Twitter: @pmahesh)


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