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TRPs: Built on houses of cards? | India News

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TRPs: Built on houses of cards? | India News 2

Television rating points are once again in the news after the Mumbai police claimed it had busted a racket involving manipulation of TRPs by unscrupulous channels to fraudulently boost viewership data and mislead advertisers.
The ongoing investigation has unearthed that five panel TV homes –households where meters are installed to capture viewership – were compromised to rig viewership of certain channels.
That’s correct, just five homes.
What difference can five homes make in a country with a TV viewing universe of 836 million? The answer: A big one among smaller genres like English news, niche categories like infotainment, and even some regional channels.

Take the example of Mumbai, the financial capital of the country. The city has over 2,000 bar-o-meters installed by Broadcast Audience Research Council India, which is around 5% of the 44,000 meters that BARC claims to have installed across the country.
As per last week’s viewership of the English news genre, the average reach of all the English news channels put together was 0.4% in Mumbai, and the average time spent per channel was around 15 minutes for the entire week.
Effectively, just eight panel homes watched these channels in Mumbai last week, giving them a disproportionate weightage in ratings.
Here’s how.

TRPs: Built on houses of cards? | India News 3

Hypothetically, if one channel identifies even two homes with these bar-o-meters and pays them to watch one particular news channel for 2 hours, instead of 15 minutes, in a week, the average time spent on that channel will go up by a whopping 175% to over 41 minutes. As reach has remained the same, TRPs of the channel in Mumbai alone will also go up by 175%.

The other fundamental issue with TRPs is the mechanism. While every effort is said to be made to keep the list of panel homes confidential, the vulnerability lies in the human chain: A TV channel bribes a relationship manager in the research set-up, who then ‘incentivizes’ a few households to keep the channel switched on. “Rigging of 10-20 homes or even up to 50 homes will not have any impact on mass entertainment channels, but for smaller genres, ratings will widely swing in their favour,” said a top TV executive of a channel.
TOI spoke with multiple executives across TV channels and media agencies and most of them asked for anonymity to speak freely as the matter is too sensitive and their clients are directly involved.

Rig The Gig
Since the advent of the ratings system in India, channels have tried to use unscrupulous methods to manipulate ratings.
While BARC’s role as a ratings agency is now under intense scrutiny, its predecessor, TAM, which was a joint venture between Nielsen and Kantar, was also criticised on similar grounds. Earlier in July, the News Broadcasters Association (NBA) had accused BARC of “conniving” with TV9’s Bharatvarsh, a Hindi news channel, to manipulate viewership.
Rajat Sharma, president of the NBA, told this correspondent that the events that have unfolded in the last few months and particularly the last three days, have clearly demonstrated that there are “weaknesses” in the rating system.

“BARC itself has acknowledged in its police complaints that metered homes are being manipulated. The investigation has exposed that panel homes were being compromised by certain channels. It has been done with the help of ex-employees who are familiar with the system and aware of which homes have meters,” said Sharma, who is also chairman of India TV.
Corrupted data, Sharma added, is creating a false narrative on ‘what India watches’ and is putting pressure on newsrooms to make editorial decisions that are distorted and based on inaccurate information.
Industry mavens say broadcasters themselves will have to stop the practice. “There is no vaccination against this man-made problem,” said the CEO of an ad agency. “All stakeholders have to understand that TV measurement is an industry service and the people who created the service should abide by a set of ethics.”
An email query sent to BARC India remained unanswered till the time of going to press.
A senior TV executive said that if people are intent on beating the system by unethical practices, there is no foolproof solution against such frauds. “There are numerous statistical forensic methods used continuously by the system. But one has to understand that between 44,000 meters, the system is generating data points for every individual every 8 seconds. The quality control algorithms check data points randomly, and will not keep checking the same household,” he explained.
Big Returns On ‘Investment’
TV channels, especially those that are free-to-air (FTA), are dependent on advertising revenues. For them, spending a few lakhs on tampering with viewership data could yield big gains.
“The upside is too big to not take such risks, which is why many channels keep doing this, instead of spending money on quality content,” said the distribution head of a TV channel.
BARC India uses third-party vendors for installation, maintenance, and operation of bar-o-meters at panel homes. For this, it pays Rs between 150-Rs 750 per month to these panel homes. Which makes it challenging to get higher socio-economic classes to allow these meters to be installed in their homes. In effect, it leaves the top 2.5% of Indian viewers out of the viewership measurement system.
“There is no motivation for most of the higher economic classes to allow bar-o-meters in their homes. Thus the entire ratings are coming from ‘economically weaker’ households, who are easy to target. It’s like elections, where people cast their votes in favour of one candidate for money,” said a business head of a channel.
BARC has been working on mitigating these risks. In April 2017, it set up a six-member independent disciplinary committee headed by Justice (retired) Mukul Mudgal to investigate and address complaints of viewership malpractices and tampering of its measurement system. In the next 28 months, the council referred 18 cases to the committee with evidence of malpractices.
“The issue is that BARC complains but police doesn’t lodge FIRs in many smaller cities,” said a person closely associated with BARC. “They think it is a frivolous thing to charge people for accepting money to watch more TV. Any attempts at rigging data need to be punishable under the law.”
Vicious Cycle
The entire consumer classification system, or NCCS, based on the chief wage earner’s education and number of “consumer durables” (from a pre-defined list) owned by the family is outdated, say media industry insiders. What’s more, it is based on a 2017 survey, after which a lot has changed in the TV universe thanks to sector regulator Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI)’s new tariff order (NTO). Post implementation of NTO, consumers can select only the channels they want to watch at the MRP of each.
“Does it actually represent India’s TV viewing universe? The answer is no. The sample is extrapolated on the basis of an old establishment survey, which was done two and half years ago. It doesn’t reflect the dynamic situation on the ground,” said a TV research executive. “It pre-dates NTO, which represented a tectonic shift in the distribution space. By gut feel we know that the TV universe has shrunk and many people have moved from cable TV to DTH. A lot of these shifts aren’t captured.”
Then there’s the issue of sample size. Even at 44,000 meters, many in the industry feel that the sample is inadequate and there’s need for more boxes to diminish relative error in viewership. Ultimately, TV executives say it is a vicious circle that is going to affect the entire industry in the long term, which might see advertisers moving to digital platforms if not corrected immediately.

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