The Amusing Business of the TRPs

Guest Column: Sandeep Goyal, Chairman of Mogae Group, recounts the industry's previous brushes with TRP tampering and shares his views on the recent controversy

e4m by Sandeep Goyal
Updated: Oct 13, 2020 10:06 AM
sandeep goyal

Is the business of TRP tampering quite as serious as it is being made out to be? Is it something ‘the nation wants to know’, and know desperately? Is it something that deserves all the air-time and newspaper headlines that are being devoted to it? My view simply is a big ‘No’. Yes, a big No. Dirty tricks are part of every trade. ‘Likes’ and ‘followers’ are being crooked by celebrities, and the police have been chasing digital agencies that do it for them. Singer Badshah was in trouble recently for ‘buying’ views for a world record for a new song. Newspapers and magazines have fought pitched battles every time a new IRS has been released, and many of us old-timers have been on INS-sponsored field trips in the past to verify newspaper distribution. The TRP hullabaloo is nothing new: it happens with unerring regularity every few years; motives ascribed vary; heroes and villains change, but the malaise stays!

Has it happened before?

Yes, it has. I was running the Zee network in 2001 when CNBC did a big exposé, putting out into the public domain the entire list of Peoplemeter homes in Mumbai (that is what they were called back then). Also, all ad agencies and large advertisers had received a copy of the list, by courier, of the Peoplemeters list to peruse, study and analyse! Those that didn’t receive theirs through anonymous courier felt kind of left out, and somewhat let down at not being part of the ‘creamy’ layer, and were forced to beg for photocopies!

In the IBF, two distinct groups emerged very quickly – the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ – with Peter Mukerjea, who was then CEO of Star, leading the ‘haves’ because the TRPs favoured his channel; and yours truly leading the ‘have-nots’ since we were re-launching our flagship channel Zee TV and would stand to lose massively if there were no TRPs to quantify the viewership of our new shows. Kunal Dasgupta, who then ran Sony TV, would oscillate between the two groups depending on who seemed to be weighing in stronger on that day!

There were about 300+ meters in those days in Mumbai (yes, there has been a 10x increase in 20 years in the sample size All India, from 3000+ to 44,000 today, not bad), and all 100-odd South Mumbai meters were all in slums and shanties (so much for measuring SEC A and A+, as they were then classified). Each of those homes, almost universally, had two TV sets (don’t ask why!) with the metered TV running 24*7 as per a ‘list’ that the owners had been provided (obviously for a hefty monthly fees).

Twenty years later, I have no incentive, or reason to not state the truth openly. I have no commercial interests either way.

One very well-known producer was said to be behind most of the mischief. Her shows were as it is doing well. The doctored meters just magnified her success. You must’ve guessed the ‘she’ I just referred to.

To be fair, ‘her’ shows were doing 4-5-6 TRPs on their own perhaps, and with some doctored meters the numbers swelled to 7-8-9 TRPs, leaving all competitor channels at an abysmal decimal point rating in primetime.

CPRP deals with major clients were drowning all other networks, but Star, which had most of the shows of the lady, referred above. In any case, both sides had recorded interviews of Peoplemeter homes soon as ‘evidence’, for and against. The lady went scot-free, continued to prosper and is doing reasonably well even today – with or without meters being tinkered. And in any case, it was all far too long ago.

How did the AAAI and ISA react?

The AAAI was represented by Mike Khanna (JWT), Rajan Kapur (Ogilvy) and Anil ‘Billy’ Kapoor (Ulka) those days. Mike and Ranjan were the doves; Billy the hawk. The AAAI was only worried about, “Now how will we buy? How will we justify the buy?” Basically, if there was no currency, how would the media buyers trade? That was their only worry. Not the fixing. Not fairness. Just commercial convenience.

Arun Adhikari of Levers and Bharat Patel of P&G were the ISA strongmen those days – actually, the ISA was a dormant body brought alive by the TRP controversy. Both, frankly, had no real opinion. They would make lofty statements about ethics and security but had no solutions to offer.

There was no BARC those days: TAM & INTAM were the agencies

There were two rating agencies those days. TAM run by LV Krishnan and INTAM run by Titoo Ahluwalia. TAM had about 80% market share; INTAM the rest. Some agencies and broadcasters bought both reports.

Both LV and Titoo played aggrieved and wronged, and aggressive and righteous in turns. Titoo got into an argument with me one day at an industry meeting. He started to scream, challenging me to give him (read expose) the list of anyone more city in a week, and he would shut down INTAM.

I was incensed by his shouting (I was young and aggressive too those days!) and accepted the challenge. I called up an old friend in one of the INTAM towns. He was the district police chief. I explained to him what Peoplemeters were and what I was looking for. In the next 72 hours, I had a nicely typed list of all the hundred homes in that city (actually town).

INTAM shut down soon thereafter, in any case. It had nothing to do with my wager with Titoo (we were good friends) but the porosity and lax security around the meters was there for all to see.

TAM stayed. And ruled the roost for the next decade. They were WPP owned, and WPP’s agencies were the biggest players in the market. It was a comfortable monopoly. Did nobody move the MRTPC or the Competition Commission, wonder why? I refer later in this piece to some very virulent comments by Mahesh Murthy on the subject.

Is tampering of data only from the homes?

The easiest corruption of the data is done during the data collection leg, at the level of the homes where the meters can be ‘tutored’. Dr Prannoy Roy of NDTV has written about a ‘local consultant’ being available in every relevant town for cheating the TRPs, in his book More News Is Good News. His observations are by-and-large accurate.

But during my Zee innings, I also had multiple offers to ‘influence’ the data during the analysis stage. One such vendor actually demo-ed he could ‘deliver’ on any program that we chose to push up. Prices, though were very very steep.

I was even told that data could be influenced during ‘review’ when the agency ‘seniors’ look for aberrations in them. One helpful ‘senior’ could always be made to question any rival channel that was beginning to show better TRPs and ‘rationalise’ the competitor down! I was also given the name of a ‘senior’ who was willing to be bank-rolled. The name would ignite a storm, if released, even after so many years.

I was told often that all this was being done by various networks in the business; 20 years later I can tell you honestly that Zee was kosher, and perhaps even a bit naïve, despite all its bluster.

Finally, what happened?

Well, nothing. The Mumbai panel was re-constituted. Noises were made about a larger panel. All India list was also asked to be cleaned up. The AAAI, more than anyone else, wanted restoration of status quo. Business was getting impacted. Fairness of data be damned. The client reps at the ISA were there just to show muscle. It all died down in a matter of weeks.

BARC and thereafter

BARC took over from where TAM left off. The sample size has grown considerably. The official site says 1,80,000. The warring parties claim the TRPs (now called TVRs and also referred to as impressions) come from 44,000 ‘barometers’. I don’t know which number is correct.

The malaise of tampering, however, still remains. There is too much at stake. Too much money. And reputations. And egos. ‘Mine is bigger than yours’ is pet bragging right in the media industry.

Some inevitable questions:

  • Is the sample size adequate? Former CMO of Star TV, Paritosh Joshi has written a very erudite piece recently. It is a must-read for all. His assessment of the sample size being adequate is correct. Of course, more the merrier (the meters, what else?). But the inadequacy of the sample is no longer an excuse for the inaccuracy of the ratings.
  • Is this a war of GECs or news channels alone? No. Even smaller channels have their axe to grind. Mahesh Murthy’s piece on his days with Channel V, 20 years ago, versus MTV provides a very real assessment on how the malaise is all-pervasive. It is available on his LinkedIn page. Again, a piece well worth the read.
  • Is this a make-or-break moment for broadcasting, especially news, more specifically English news? Shekhar Gupta in his widely-read National Interest column seems to think that this mud-slinging between channels and anchors is getting to the verge of self-destructing. I think that is an exaggerated view. Actually, an over-valued view of both the news channels and their public face. There will be no national catastrophe if they all go home. Most of them are arm-chair TV presenters, who label themselves as journalists anyway.
  • Which brings me to the Credibility Ratings that NDTV has been tom-toming of late. Honestly, the anchors of all the channels, NDTV included, have accorded themselves demi-god status because of the proximity many of them enjoy to the powers-that-be. It exponentially inflates their self-belief in their public importance. Fact is that everyone has surely tried to mess with the ratings. Some have succeeded, some have not. Now it is all about the kettle calling the pot black. Any allusions to higher levels of ethics by NDTV too are not substantiated, at least for now.

    Whereto, here from?

    This controversy will die-down in the next few days. No one will win, no one will lose.

    • Till the time BARC continues to be controlled by the IBF (they own 60%), the agenda will be dictated by the broadcast biggies.
    • Controversy is not new to BARC. Their last head was axed unceremoniously by the governing body because he allegedly ganged up with one of the contestants in the current TRP tussle and tried to get the MIB to ‘nationalise’ the ratings (Read take governmental control by creating a TV Ratings Regulator who would be none else but the erstwhile CEO!).
    • Will governmental control make security tighter? Bah! In fact, the ratings will become then open to ‘political’ influence.
    • Is there better technology available? Data from 25+ million DTH boxes is readily available. It is difficult to fix a large enough number of DTH boxes if data is taken from all of the 25 million or more currently deployed and active. Tata-Sky, Airtel and Reliance Jio would be delighted by this new revenue source. But yes, these DTH homes don’t represent poorer cable homes.
    • Should clients get more active? Frankly, clients have bigger fish to fry. They have no time to participate in these tussles.
    • Media agencies? Mahesh Murthy in his above-referenced article alludes to the unholy control WPP has always had on the system in India. I suppose that can’t be helped. In Japan, Dentsu has the same advantage.
    • Should BARC desist from doing anything but ratings? If you can’t stop auditors (The Big Four) from consultancy work for their corporate clients, why single out BARC?

    Current controversy: who is the one sinn’d against?

    As I said before, this is just a skirmish, a nice little distraction. Arnab Goswami has now got more reasons to shout and scream. The Commissioner of Police, Parambir Singh, has decisively shown who the boss in Mumbai is. For now, the score is 1-1. Play on!

    Dr Sandeep Goyal is a media veteran. He is former President of Rediffusion; ex-Group CEO of Zee Telefilms; former Chairman of Dentsu India. He currently chairs the Mogae Group; he is also Chairman of the Forum for Ethical Used of Data (FEUD).

    Disclaimer: The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not in any way represent the views of exchange4media.com.

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