Ratings row

Published : Sep 21, 2012 00:00 IST

The NDTV suit against a media research firm highlights the need for an independent, neutral system of monitoring TV viewing.

in New delhi

AS a legal battle between NDTV and TAM Media Research is about to take off in the New York Supreme Court, broadcasters and advertisers in India are going all out to voice their criticism of the methodology adopted by TAM. NDTV filed a suit in the New York State Supreme Court seeking damages of around $1.4 billion for negligence and fraud from The Nielsen Company, a global research and information firm, and Kantar Media Research, which are equal partners in TAM Media.

The issue of manipulation of TAM ratings, however, cannot be divorced from the larger context of the need for self-regulation within the industry and the onus on broadcasters to ensure that such unfair practices are not used to artificially inflate ratings. In order to understand the present controversy, it is necessary to ask who ultimately benefits from a manipulation of television ratings and what the way forward is to ensure an independent, neutral system of monitoring television viewing. Also, it is pertinent to ask where the audience figures in all of this and whether audience measurement has been merely reduced to a tool by advertisers and broadcasters to create consumers.

Problems of methodology

The methodology used by TAM for audience measurement has come under the scanner on two major counts the small size of the audience sample and the possibility of manipulation of people meters. (People meters are gadgets attached to the television set which automatically record the television-viewing details of the people using the set.) TAM Media Research has about 8,150 people meters installed across the country, which monitor the TV-viewing habits of approximately 33,500 people. Broadcasters feel that the sample size is highly inadequate and hence the survey is unrepresentative of the TV-viewing habits of about 146 million people.

TAM started its operations in 1998. Initially, people meters were designed to record the viewing details of households with analogue televisions only. With the advent of digital television in India in 2006-07, platform-neutral people meters, which could track the viewing habits in digital television, IPTV (Internet protocol television) and broadband, were designed. Broadcasters feel that small sample sizes do not reflect the actual viewing habits of a diverse and heterogeneous TV-watching population. Besides, a small sample size also increases the chances of manipulation of ratings recorded by people meters through inducements offered to select households.

Speaking to Frontline, an industry source explained, We are a heterogeneous society where the audience tastes are diverse. The sample size of 8,150 people meters covering about 30,000 people is highly unrepresentative of the viewing habits of 146 million TV viewers. Besides, English news in itself is a non-mass viewing segment. Of these 8,150 people meters, approximately 100 to 150 boxes track viewers of English news. Also, there is no integrity in the method of selecting panel homes, which means that you can find out for a price which are the homes that have people meters installed and influence people to view your channel by offering inducements. The rating agency has to design a method that is foolproof and guards against manipulation. The excuse that there arent enough funds to increase the sample size is not acceptable. If there are about 20,000 people meters instead of the present 8,150, there will be fewer chances of manipulation.

NDTV, when contacted by this reporter, did not offer any comments on the lawsuit as the matter was sub judice.

Need for self-regulation

The issue, however, is not merely one of a faulty methodology adopted by TAM Media Research. Broadcasters are the largest subscribers of the data collated by TAM Media Research, which are also used by advertisers to determine how to place ads in television channels. Therefore, the issue of manipulation of TAM data not just raises questions about the credibility of the research firm but also brings to the fore unethical practices by broadcasters in a competitive market. In fact, TAM was formed at the behest of the industry in 1998, in response to the need for a central, neutral industry agency for tracking television viewing.

An industry source said, TAM was formed in 1998 as a joint venture between The Nielsen Co. and Kantar Media Research at the behest of the broadcasters and advertisers. The Indian Society of Advertisers, the Advertising Agencies Association of India and the Indian Broadcasting Foundation were the key stakeholders of the industry and the major subscribers for TAM data. In order to expand its sampling, TAM needs more funds. TAM has never received proper and timely support for funding its expansion of the sample size. Even with its limited resources, TAM is all set to expand its capacity to over 41,000 viewers by the end of 2012 and install about 10,000 people meters covering 225 houses. TAM will have no interest in manipulating its own data. It needs to be asked then who are the parties who will benefit from manipulation? Why doesnt the broadcasting industry come together to take a strong view on the issue of manipulation of TAM and discourage players across the industry to stop this practice?

Before the formation of TAM, a method of diary rating was used for the determination of television viewership, whereby data were collected every week manually from households for viewership of channels corresponding to time slots. Doordarshan has its own Audience Research Unit. In tabulating the Doordarshan Audience Research Ratings, viewership data are collected using the diary form from representative panel members in both rural and urban areas. While the people meter system records data on a real-time basis minute by minute, the diary rating system comes on a weekly basis. However, the diary rating system is more transparent and authentic, and there are fewer chances for manipulation.

While pointing out some of the limitations of the methodology adopted by TAM, a parliamentary report of the Standing Committee on Information Technology released in 2008 had also highlighted the existence of a monopolistic ratings regime. The committee noted, According to the Ministry, apart from the prohibitive cost of equipment/rating meters, the other major reasons for more entities not entering the system reportedly appear to be the entry barriers, use of various unfair and anti-competitive measures by the existing players, apprehensions in the minds of broadcasters, etc. Prasar Bharati is of the opinion that the industry has so far preferred to maintain a status quo and not been inclined to encourage the new players.

In January 2011, a committee set up by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, headed by Amit Mitra, then secretary general of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI), in its report took a serious view of the small sample size used by the two existing rating agencies in India. The committee also observed that rural areas had been left out from the current system of TRP measurement. It recommended an increase in the sample size from 8,000 people meters to 15,000 in urban and rural households over a period of two years and then to 30,000 over the next three years, covering urban areas, rural areas and small towns, Jammu and Kashmir and the north-eastern States.

Anil Chamadia, the convener of Media Studies Group, an independent, non-profit think tank, highlighted how television ratings were merely becoming a tool to manufacture consumers: The end users for the ratings are advertisers and broadcasters. There are chances of manipulation by the advertisers also who are looking to create a target audience for their products. The audience is not directly the end user of the ratings. There should be a platform that addresses the viewing habits of the audience in a more unbiased way.

The standing committee report had also highlighted the fact that the rating agencies did not cover rural areas, which accounted for 70 per cent of Indias population.

The Broadcast Audience Research Council, which is in the process of formation, is expected to come up with a more transparent system of television ratings. The BARC was first registered in July 2010 as a not-for-profit body under Section 25 of the Companies Act. In January 2011, the Amit Mitra Committee report recommended that the BARC should have a 12-member board, with seven members from broadcasters including the public broadcaster, three from among advertisers, and two from advertising agencies. Industry sources said that the BARC would be a joint industry-monitoring body and would oversee the process of television audience measurement by TAM.

Under the broad parameters of an agreement between the key stakeholders involved in the setting up of the BARC, broadcasters will constitute 60 per cent of its total membership, while the rest will be comprised of advertisers represented by the Indian Society of Advertisers and Advertising Agencies Association of India. Speaking to Frontline, an industry source said, The BARC is expected to come up in the next month or so. With the BARC becoming functional, it is hoped that there will be more transparency in the process of measurement of ratings.

The News Broadcasters Association (NBA) has written to the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting asking for an independent audit of TAM ratings. While the different stakeholders in the industry have come together to address the issue of audience measurement, it remains to be seen how robust the proposed framework of self-regulation will be. The transparency in the measurement of ratings can only come about if the broadcasters are willing to look beyond garnering advertisement revenue in a highly competitive market to gauge the actual viewing habits of consumers. This has serious implications for the ways in which the business of news and television journalism is practised in the country.

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