NDTV vs. TAM: When it all boils down to public opinion

WPP and NDTV have indulged in a media battle by making, and clarifying, allegations. The legal fight, if there is going to be one, is yet to unfold. But the one thing reiterated from this case is that public opinion matters

e4m by Noor Fathima Warsia
Updated: Aug 27, 2012 11:36 PM
NDTV vs. TAM: When it all boils down to public opinion

In the last five days, WPP, one of the defendants in the NDTV lawsuit against TAM and its parent companies Nielsen and Kantar, has made it clear that it is not going to take allegations against its companies lying low. While NDTV’s lawsuit had raised many questions and had led to conversations doubting the integrity of TAM Media Research’s operations and hence the veracity of the TV ratings system in India, WPP’s statement on August 22, 2012, that dubbed NDTV’s lawsuit as “hypothetical”, triggered another set of conversations in the industry. At first many were surprised that it was WPP, and WPP alone, that was commenting on the case. But there was no denying that WPP’s decision to break its silence was making an impact.

Not a case of sub judice anymore...
Not many in the industry commented on the NDTV lawsuit prior to the WPP statement, as it was considered a matter of sub judice. Especially the companies involved – NDTV, TAM Media Research, Nielsen, Kantar, WPP and others – did not offer any comments for nearly a month. WPP’s statement changed that. By making a comment to the media challenging the manner in which the lawsuit was served, a new set of public debate commenced and the industry was surprised that the lawsuit was not even served till then to WPP companies. NDTV clarified to say that lawsuit was served on August 10 but WPP maintained that it was a faulty service, made only on one of the WPP companies.

The ensuing trial by media
It was not the lawsuit alone that was troubling WPP; it was the media attention that the lawsuit, given its subject, drew not only in India but also in other markets. Some industry observers had stated that the lawsuit was written about in 40 other markets where defendant companies such as Nielsen conducted their businesses in. In India, the media coverage included agency and broadcaster association commenting on their concerns against the charges made on TAM. Some broadcasters even went on to assert the allegations against the ratings company. In its press comments, WPP’s CEO Martin Sorrell had said that he was not happy with the ensuing "trial by media" and the hit that WPP’s, or its companies such as TAM’s, image had taken due to this. WPP’s statement, that it was contemplating defamation proceedings against NDTV, underlined how serious WPP was against the negative PR. And it was in fact this statement that rattled NDTV into issuing a response in the press calling WPP’s response PR-driven and reiterating corruption charges against TAM.

A media attack
The statements that were first clarifying, soon switched to the “They said” mode and WPP informed that NDTV approached WPP for a settlement – a comment that NDTV challenged, and in turn WPP issued a statement making public, a portion of an email exchange between NDTV’s CEO Vikram Chandra and Kantar’s CEO Eric Salama, written by Chandra to Salama and Salama’s response. In the press, where NDTV was making comments on Martin Sorrell’s statements to the extent of saying that Sorrell should take India seriously, WPP made comments on NDTV’s financials and even on the US lawyers handling the NDTV case. The statements had transcended to war of words and personal attacks between the two companies.

An issue beyond just NDTV’s charges
One factor that TAM Media Research and its parent companies need to be concerned about is that while the lawsuit was filed only by NDTV, other members of the industry have also seized the opportunity to attack TAM. At a channel level, players such as Doordarshan and HMTV are said to be pursuing their own course and at an industry level, the NBA (New Broadcasters Association) has approached the MIB (Ministry of Information and Broadcasting) to not only get TAM audited by an independent third party but also to suspend TAM data till this and other NBA suggestions on ratings mechanism in India is achieved. It may be recalled that the NBA was in conversation with TAM, late last year, to change the frequency of its data release from weekly to monthly, a suggestion that was widely opposed by advertisers and agencies.

Where is the legal angle headed?
In the course of all this, what is next for the lawsuit yet remains to be seen. By now there are too many questions on the case itself – whether it would be under the New York State court jurisdiction, what is next if the case is registered and moves forward in the New York State court, what happens if WPP's suggested notice of striking out the case is accepted – in short, what is the legal way forward to the points raised in NDTV’s lawsuit, and where is it headed from here?

The India factor...
NDTV’s decision to not fight the case in India but in a US court itself had raised many eyebrows. Where on the one side, this reiterated the seriousness of new broadcaster’s approach to the subject, on the other side, Sorrell pointed out that the case must be “properly filed and fought in front of Indian courts that are more than competent to hear it”. At a global level, NDTV’s charges went on to highlight alleged corruption in the India market. Whether the case is finally fought in the US court or not is yet to be seen, but for many industry observers, it was a “sad moment for the industry per se for this issue to have escalated to this”.

The big question now is what happens next after the dust settles on all press statements. At an industry level, BARC looks like a reality and WPP CEO Martin Sorrell has pointed out how agencies such as TAM Media Research have worked well with industry associations of this nature in other markets. Nonetheless, how long this media battle continues and what it leads to would definitely play a key role in shaping up the future of TV ratings mechanism in India.

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