No matter how much we argue, the truth remains that ‘viewership is the single magic wand that brings money to the television channels’. Once a channel finds a way to get the numbers in its favour, half the war is won. While there have been enough complaints about the alleged tampering of sample homes of the measurement system and use of dual logical channel numbers (LCNs), the fact is that even this twisted viewership gets equal chance to stand in the advertisers’ courtroom like all other data.
A recently talked about topic was ‘landing page’ and how its usage gives a sudden spike to the channel’s viewership. What is the concept? The landing page is the channel where you land as soon as you switch on your set-top-box (STB). This channel has been left empty for the distributors to use it for their commercial gains, ‘only by selling ad slots on this channel’. The broadcasters can run their promotional content like promos and offer details on this channel, against some amount of money. Other than this, the distributor can run its own promo videos or can give it to home-shopping channels.
What happens when a broadcaster floats its live feed on this channel, along with the channel number reserved for it? It is obvious that the viewership will spike because people tend to stay for a while to at least ascertain what content is playing. The Broadcast Audience Research Council (BARC) India captures the watermark on a channel to measure viewership. Hence, even if a person lands on the channel's feed on landing page, he is still recorded as a viewer of the channel that appeared on the landing page.
Recently, when all the English news channels had a war of sorts, which ended up in a court case, it was noticed that a lot of news channels are involved in the practice of buying the landing page location. The problem here is that the malpractice is not restricted to news genre, the Hindi general entertainment channels (GECs), which contribute to over about 28-35 per cent of both viewership and revenues of the total TV industry also carry out these stunts. A leading broadcast network is consistently adopting this method of viewership grabbing, while another one has just started following suit. When the viewership skews to one end or the other, for how long are the other players expected to stay away from these practices? When asked if this practice could be stopped, Sunil Gupta, Principal Advisor, TRAI said, “If this is happening, we need a complaint. If no one lodges a complaint, how will we react and to what?”
The distributor’s landing location is rampantly bought by channels. But then shouldn’t the channels remove the watermark from their feeds if they want to use the landing location for promotional purposes? Another way to use this is to calibrate the STBs in such a manner that a specific channel number (which might not be the primary channel of the distributor) becomes the default landing page whenever the STB is switched on. The problem is also bigger with GECs because a lot of their viewership comes from the non-metro markets of the country, which face frequent power cuts. These power cuts end up in restarting of the STBs too often, making landing channels all the more important.
As of now, this practice is being prominently carried out by two leading GECs in pockets of Kolkata, Mumbai, Nagpur, Chennai, Delhi, Kanpur, Ahmedabad, Jaipur and Indore among others. “It can be verified that the LCN acquisition started after Week 18, which means that pre week 17, the reach of this channel was lesser by ½-1/8 times as that of the current reach. This kind of extrapolated reach cannot be organic, neither has there been any phenomenal programming innovation,” said a senior industry expert, on condition of anonymity.
TRAI wants to end this malpractice. When asked if a regulation was in the pipeline, Gupta said, “In all the previous regulations, we have never recognised the ‘landing channel.’ However, in the recent regulations issued under ‘quality of services’, there is a provision that checks the landing page issue. The regulation was notified in March and is in process of implementation. Six months have been given for the implementation of this regulation.”
So, will this regulation restrict the placement of channels on the landing locations? Well, the regulation doesn’t notify it directly.
As Gupta explained, “Consumers have a lot of queries, about the change of plan, going from package to a-la-carte, repairing and replacement charges of STBs, procurement of bills, registration of complaints. We have, in our new regulation, stated that all the distribution platform operators (including MSOs, DTH, IPTV and LCOs) will have to run a channel called the ‘consumer information channel’, which will be at 999, showing all of the above information. This channel should come as soon as you turn on your STB.”
Since the word ‘landing channel’ can be misinterpreted in many ways, TRAI has avoided using that word altogether.
Once this regulation is implemented, everything that appears outside of 999 will be considered as dual LCNs. The regulation has already distinctly stated that ‘no one can show a channel on dual LCNs and that it has to be restricted to its own genre’.