Why the anxiety and why the rush?

BARC said it was not ready, but the government says BARC is. What has been done in the last three weeks that makes the data kosher, writes Chintamani Rao, an independent media consultant

e4m by Chintamani Rao
Updated: Jan 17, 2022 9:12 AM  | 5 min read
Chintamani Rao

Why does the government of India persist in meddling with TV audience measurement? That has nothing to do with the political stripe of the government of the day: I have been seeing this since at least 2008, perhaps earlier.

 In the on-going ratings mess the data for news channels has been suspended for over a year now.

 In November 2020 the government appointed a committee headed by S S Vempati, CEO of Prasar Bharati, to review the guidelines for TV ratings agencies. The committee submitted its report in January 2021. For reasons beyond the capacity of mortals to fathom, the report was kept under wraps and pretty much nothing happened until 1st Nov 2021, when, ten months after submission, it was shared with BARC and the broadcasters’ industry bodies. 

 It is interesting that the committee was headed by not just a broadcaster but by the CEO of Prasar Bharati. The government’s biggest grouse with TAM was that in its data on Doordarshan didn’t show up as well as they thought it should. That didn’t change when BARC replaced TAM. And now the CEO of Prasar Bharati was heading a committee to revamp the ratings system. Conflict of interest?

 Equally interesting, of the three members of the committee – all no doubt highly qualified specialists – not one has had the remotest connection with broadcasting or with audience measurement, and so absolutely no idea of the ground reality of the business.

 Predictably, the recommendations of the committee are theoretically sound but practically naïve. Its chief recommendation is “mandatory collection of viewership information by using the Return Path Data (RPD) technology”. Anyone who has any connection with audience measurement knows RPD is desirable because it enables collection of large amounts of data at a fairly low cost. But they also know the related issues and limitations, which are enough to be the subject of a separate discussion. Suffice it to say for the present that RPD is currently not in use anywhere in the world except in very limited, platform-specific applications, and broad-based RPD is still a work in progress in Europe.

 In the case of India RPD has another twist. It necessarily requires the involvement of DPOs, and that is a constituency no government has been able to deal with. Here’s how bad it is: TRAI in its April 2020 recommendations advocated mandatory RPD but specifically said that DPOs could negotiate the terms on which they would share the data with the ratings agency. So it would be mandatory for the ratings agency to buy the data, but not mandatory for DPOs to supply it. Nice.

 The Chairman of the committee heads an organization that owns a DTH platform that is in over 25% of India’s TV homes: DD Freedish. It would be interesting to know if he has the outlines of a plan to make Freedish RPD compliant.

 On Dec 16, some six weeks after the Vempati committee report was shared with the broadcasting industry (which was ten months after it was submitted), BARC reportedly met the I&B Ministry and said they needed ten weeks to implement the required changes. Yet just three weeks later, on 13th Jan, the Ministry ordered BARC to immediately resume publishing news channel data.

 Why the anxiety, and why the rush? BARC said it was not ready, but the government says BARC is. What has been done in the last three weeks that makes the data kosher?

 Over the years the government’s intervention has been focused on one genre: news. So it is driven by its concern not about the science of audience measurement and the integrity of the data, but about news ratings, though news has historically accounted for just 7% of total TV viewership, going up to 10% on big news days. And there is no bigger news period than elections.

 Let’s spell it out. Big news days are a time for news channels to sell advertising, and there is no bigger news time than elections. Ad rates have been depressed, and as viewership increases because of the upcoming elections news channels can raise their rates: the leaders, hugely. But to justify the increase they need data, which have been suspended for a year now. Enter I&B Ministry.

 And when ordering BARC to resume releasing data immediately the Ministry has told them to also release the last three months’ data. That will helpfully provide the base on which to show growth, so that the rates can be increased accordingly.

 Quid pro quo.

 PS: The government has also announced a newcommittee, again chaired by S S Vempati, to study methods of data capture, including RPD, with members from the IT ministry, BARC, BIS, the Cable Federation and the DTH Association. It carefully excludes the only organisation in India that has not only been doing audience measurement for over 20 years but has actually been working for a few years on RPD. Yes, TAM.

 (Chintamani Rao is an independent media consultant. He has been involved with audience measurement for over 20 years in various capacities: media agency head, news broadcaster, Director of IBF, a founder and Director of NBA (now NBDA), Chairman of BARC, and a member of the TAM Transparency Panel.)

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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