What prompts this rush to reinstate TRPs?

Is this a way to get the narrative back? Is this a way to divide media again and rule it even more effectively?, asks Dr Annurag Batra, Chairman & Editor-in-Chief of e4m & BW Businessworld

e4m by Annurag Batra
Updated: Jan 13, 2022 8:48 PM  | 5 min read
annurag batra

It’s Lohri today and an auspicious day. On this auspicious day, comes a government directive for measurement and ratings agency BARC to resume ratings with immediate effect.  The BARC site and homepage says ‘transparent, accurate, inclusive, TV audience measurement system’.

In a meeting with government officials on 16 December, BARC CEO Nakul Chopra had asked the ministry to consider giving the agency more time since it would want to get all its stakeholders on board and then need 10 weeks’ lead time to resume ratings. The question is, why has government rushed into this decision now despite that request and directed BARC to resume TRPs at the earliest?

BARC has Punit Goenka as its Chairman. The BARC board includes NP Singh of Sony, Shashi Vempati, CEO of Prasar Bharati, K Madhavan of Star and Disney India, Bharat Patel, former CMD of Procter & Gamble India, Sunil Kataria of Godrej, Kalli Purie, Vice Chairperson, India Today Group, Jayant Mathew of Malyala Manorama, Anupriya Acharya of Publicis and Shashi Sinha of IPG Brands. Nakul Chopra, an industry veteran, is the CEO. Chopra was appointed after Sunil Lulla stepped down.

The question is, considering that the BARC had sought more time at the 16 December meeting, how come the Union Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (I&B) has decided to direct BARC to resume ratings with immediate effect on 12 January? It has also directed broadcasters to release the last three months’ data in a monthly format for fair and equitable representation of true trends. The ministry has also set up a working group under the Chairmanship of the CEO of Prasar Bharati for the consideration of leveraging the Return Path Data capabilities for the use of TRP services. 

The ratings had been suspended for a year post the ratings row. What has changed since then? What needs to change now? The question to ask is, why the rush to resume ratings now? Who does it help? There are broadly five stakeholders here, the news broadcasters, the non-news broadcasters, the advertisers, the viewers, and let’s say, the fifth one is the government.

Even though this bit of information cannot be confirmed, it was a decision which was taken in one day and was in form of instructions from the top to be implemented fast.  Is this a political decision taken by the government with the elections in the key states of Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Uttarakhand due over the next 30 days? There was an unspoken divide amongst broadcasters on whether to resume the ratings ASAP or not. The view to get the ratings back seems to have prevailed.

The quality of content on news channels has broadly remained unchanged over the last one year. It was continuing on established programming formulas and tested means. However, one can say with confidence that the shrillness of the content had subsided. The content had become better, as the pursuit of ratings was no longer the only objective. The rates of advertising were broadly secured on past performance and brand strength and historical data.

Does this new development get the news channels to compete with one another as in the past and make the content shriller and more divisive? In fact, former I&B ministers of this government have advocated not having TRP or ratings for news channels. That has been advocated in the past as a panacea for improving news channel content.

Will the content on news channels become loud, shrill and queer the pitch for the anchors and the spokespersons? Will issues that polarise opinion in every way dominate news coverage?

In an interaction with me more than a decade ago Baba Ramdev had said TRPs are “tatkalin rashtra patan” (destruction of the nation). It does seem that his prognosis was not wrong.

The story of the threat to the Prime Minister’s security has died out over the last four days. Is it fair to assume that had the ratings been determined while it was being aired, the story would have played out over at least a week or 10 days? Instead, the story of MLAs quitting the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Uttar Pradesh is now being aired on all news channels.

Is this a way to get the narrative back? Is this a way to divide media again and rule it even more effectively?

There are two other points that have to be factored in, first is the legality of the government directive. Let me say it is kind of binding on BARC. As per TRAI guidelines of 2006 and implemented and accepted in 2008, the government  will  recognise the rating agency or agencies and BARC is a license holder of ratings from MIB .  While BARC can challenge this, and if it does this, it will need to then answer a show-cause notice from MIB.  If BARC did that, it can buy two months or so but BARC may not want to do this . BARC has to worry about the currency and its existence.

 However the second point is that the BARC board and CEO possibly would  be very happy with this I&B order and may have actually built a case with MIB for making this happen as BARC s revenues and outstanding was a cause of concern . Because of lack of ratings, there were large outstanding of the broadcasters to BARC.

 Now with ratings coming back, broadcasters will need to pay the past dues as well as the fees for the current ratings. BARC may be actually happy with the order and may have even used the clout of the BARC board members to get the order from the MIB. It’s clearly a win-win for BARC and the government.  

The budgets from political parties for news channels in particular, and digital channels in general, for the next 30 days are huge. Will this measure also help the political masters get a better bargain from the news channels?

These are indeed, poignant questions to ponder on.

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