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If there is incompetence, how can integrity and acceptance of our data be high, says BARC India CEO Partho Dasgupta

On completion of 100 weeks of delivering all India data, Dasgupta takes some tough questions from BestMediaInfo.com, asked on behalf of stakeholders

Partho Dasgupta

It has been 100 weeks of delivering television viewership data for all India by BARC. When the first individual viewership data was released in Week 21 of 2015, the entire television viewership was recorded at 7.9 billion Impressions in Urban markets which grew to a total of 20.5 billion Impressions in Week 41 of the same year (Urban+Rural). The Urban viewership grew to 10.6 billion Impressions while the first full week Rural viewership stood at 9.9 billion.

Cut to last week (Week 36 of 2017), the all India viewership touched 28.4 billion Impressions (Urban+Rural) where Urban markets contributed with 13.5 billion Impressions and Rural with 14.9 billion Impressions.

BestMediaInfo.com, over the months, gathered the most burning issues of the industry and reached out to BARC India CEO Partho Dasgupta for answers.

At a time when the agency is celebrating its 100-week milestone, Dasgupta agreed to sit down for an exclusive interview.

Excerpts:

If TV viewership study is funded by one section of stakeholders, can it be accused of taking sides and “treating” data to benefit majority funder? Over the last the two years, has BARC India faced that complaint considering IBF is the majority stakeholder?

One of the key reasons for setting up BARC India was the industry’s discomfort with questions on conflict of interest with the old measurement system. BARC India was, therefore, set up as a joint industry body, in line with government guidelines. It is the only regulator compliant and licensed TV viewership measurement agency in the country. All stakeholders are represented on the BARC India board through their representative bodies. The Tech Comm has equal representation of all three stakeholders. Also the governance structure has been built in such a way that there is no “skew” in favour of any particular stakeholder body. To that extent BARC India’s functioning has been marked by close cooperation from all, and this has helped us set up the world’s largest measurement system.

Congratulations on the century. We learnt from your tweets that BARC has completed 100 weeks of All India data. Yet, some broadcasters and agency representatives we meet mention that the BARC response to their queries hasn't been satisfactory. How do you defend that?

Thanks. It is indeed satisfying to look back and take stock of what Team BARC India has achieved. Coming to satisfaction levels of our subscribers, I have in the past admitted that we started with a small team, and this did impact our query response performance in the initial days. We were conscious of the fact that expectations from BARC India were high. We applied ourselves to the problem, and now the situation is totally different. For the current period, the query resolution rate is 92%, and the average turnaround time is two days. We will continue to strive for higher levels of excellence in our service standards.

But questions relating to competence and successful client relationship management require strong internal systems and expertise. There is a feeling in the industry that decisions get pushed to, and therefore stuck at, the board level. Isn’t that a valid complaint, given that the board meets at infrequent intervals?

I will ask you to look at the data that’s up on our website: if we are closing 92% of the queries within an average of two days, is it fair to say things get stuck and delayed?

We have a multi-level grievance redressal mechanism. It starts with a dedicated team that trains clients on a daily basis, and is available to assist clients at every step, with in-person and online support. We have a client facing team which is in touch with their client base on a day-to-day basis. There is a cloud-based platform that logs and tracks every client query all the way through to closure, and this is monitored on a daily basis. Queries that remain unresolved get escalated to the next level, and there are several levels all the way up to the Tech Comm and then the board for matters that merit their attention.

We gather feedback from and respond to not just our clients, but non-subscribers as well – through our website, call-centre and social media channels.

On the matter of panel infiltration, we have set up an Independent Disciplinary Committee headed by Justice Mukul Mudgal. They meet on a regular basis to address issues related to infiltration.

I really don’t see a correlation between frequency of board meetings, and our operational efficiencies. The Tech Comm and board guide us on larger policies issues, and we are where we are today because of their vision and guidance.

Lastly, I will admit there are some queries for which we will never have answers! When one is asked, “How can I increase my channel’s reach in such-and-such geography?”, "why is channel xx ratings higher than channel yy" etc., how are we supposed to respond! We are in the business of answering "what" and not "why".

Fair enough. Let me now turn to another issue that has come up in my conversations with people in the industry: which is BARC India’s pricing model. There are several people in the industry who say that your pricing is higher than what they paid in the past. Is that true? Also, in the context of pricing, while most people who I spoke to testify the integrity of BARC data, they find competence a real issue.

I see a contradiction between what “some people” have told you, and facts on the ground. If there is incompetence, how can integrity and acceptance of our data be high?

We have a transparent pricing mechanism, which was developed to keep away from individual negotiations. Our ad valorem model helps small broadcasters pay less while bigger ones pay more. For agencies too, we follow a similar approach. The total revenue in our first year of operations – in spite of almost triple panel size and state of the art technology – was roughly in line with that of the erstwhile rating company. We know of subscribers that are paying lower than what they were paying earlier. As total advertising spend grows, you will see the proportion paid for research coming down to global levels.

Talking of competence, we listen to our clients and in keeping with that, have brought in 20 updates in our BMW software since we started rolling out data. This has been entirely driven by client feedback.

The industry must appreciate that we as an industry have not invested in media analytics much. One of the first challenges BARC faced during set up was about talent. BARC continues to invest on talent – bringing in international experts and also grooming young talent from the best institutes of the country. This issue is not just with BARC. Even top broadcasters complain about talent issue at their end when it comes to media analytics. We all need to groom talent.

A lot of people whom we spoke to have often said that BARC needs expert hands, especially an expert and experienced technical committee working towards stability of the system. Does BARC have people with strong background in research, data or viewership measurement?

We have some of the best and most respected names from the industry on our board and Tech-Comm. Their collective expertise, experience and standing cannot be matched or doubted. Period.

Over the years, we have expanded our Tech-Comm with representation from all stakeholders. All members come with their own expertise. Even internally, we have expanded each department, by roping in people from different sectors and from across the globe. They come with vast experience in their fields and are here to strengthen the service we provide to the industry. We are and will work towards meeting the growing needs of the industry.

Coming to the recent universe update, on what parameters was the expansion done? Which NCCS has been given more weightage and why? And are there any genres which are “worse off” as a result of this universe reboot?

The expansion has been done exactly in the same proportion as changes in landscape on the ground. We began with a Universe Estimate that was based on IRS 2013 data projected to 2015 basis Census 2011, and several other data points.

BI-2016 was effectively our first Establishment Study, and hence it was not only the base for panel expansion, but also re-alignment / course corrections of our earlier projections. According to BI, while NCCS A dropped from 22% to 21%, NCCS B and C went up from 24% to 27% and 31% to 32%, respectively. NCCS D/E on the other hand de-grew from 23% to 20.

TV ownership and viewership landscape is highly dynamic in India, and BARC India’s responsibility is to accurately map that universe and measure What India Watches – measurement sampling is not based on what one watches – it is more a derivative of what India watches.

The BARC India panel has now gone up to 30k homes. How have the new meters been distributed across urban and rural homes. How can you assure industry that data from the BARC India panel is truly representative of the country’s viewership?

At the 30k meter level, 67% are in Urban India and the remaining 33% in Rural. This spread is dictated by the need to cover a more heterogenous viewership profile in urban areas than rural, where due to homogeneity, larger populations can be accurately covered by lesser number of meters. Even in Urban India, we cover every town class, unlike the past. Going forward, in the scale up beyond 30K, spread and split of meters will be dictated by UE changes. We started with the commitment to measure what India watches, and will continue to do that.

If our sample wasn’t representative of the country’s viewership, would we see the kind of fidelity that BARC India data has displayed week on week, ever since we launched? There are instances every week that show our data is very sharp and reflects what India watches. When demonetisation was announced, news viewership peaked with Hindi news itself rising 46% in that week. That’s because people’s lives were impacted and they turned to TV new to stay connected with what was going on. On the Ram Rahim sentencing day, Hindi news grew 2x. During Republic Day and Independence Day, we continue to see viewership surges. When Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa passed away, we recorded an eight times growth in Tamil news viewership. When Chennai got flooded in June last year, TV connections were disrupted, and we immediately saw a 10% drop in viewership.

In sports, cricket dominates. IPL viewership continues to climb: and within that high-scoring matches always get higher viewership. More people tune into games when their favourite stars like Kohli play. At the same time, we are seeing rise in viewership of other sports, with arrival of home-grown leagues in kabaddi, football, badminton, boxing, wrestling etc., and deepening of TV penetration. Non-cricket sports now contribute to around 20% of the genre viewership. During the Rio Olympics, we observed peaks when PV Sindhu, Dipa Karmakar and Sakshi Malik turned out for India. Whenever cricket plays on DD, we see its viewership shoot up.

The performance of movies on TV more or less mirrors their performance at the box office. The top blockbusters of recent times, like Bajrangi Bhaijaan and PK, have also been among the top watched movies on TV.

I can go on and on to illustrate the fact that BARC India data reflects viewership trends and sentiments of the nation. But the point here is the industry continues to trust the integrity and robustness of data. We launched with 270 watermarked channels. Today that number has crossed 550. That would not have happened if our data was not truly representative of what India watches.

Talking of data, we are often told there is a decline in Hindi GEC viewership. What is your take on that? If Hindi GEC viewership is shrinking, where is that audience going? Is there a regional story there? Is growth of regional eating into Hindi GEC viewership?

Hindi GECs grew 17% after we updated our universe in February this year. TV viewership is also growing consistently, as is time spent watching TV. Those are the facts, and I don’t think there can be two views on facts.

Data shows that movies and sports genres saw a spike in viewership April onwards. This was led by heavy impact sports events. Regional viewership too has gone up significantly. Marathi, for instance, is up about 30%. Each genre, including regional, has its own space, and is impacted by what’s happening within genre and outside.

May onwards we observed a dip in total TV viewership, which had an impact across genres. This is a seasonal pattern that is seen every year: we see a direct co-relation between an increase in temperature and a drop in viewership, largely led by power cuts.

Industry now appreciates the impact of both internal and external changes on viewership. We have spoken about this earlier as well and while it seemed a bit difficult to believe when we first talked about it, there is all-round acceptance now, based on data trends over the last two years.

A lot of channels, especially in the niche genres, have seen a sudden rise in numbers. History TV18 and Zee Cafe are the examples. How do you justify this sudden swell in viewership?

Digitisation, expansion of BARC India panel homes from 20k to 30k, migration and education among other things have exposed people to newer genres, including niche.

In the news space, we sometimes see one mass channel witnessing too much fluctuation, while all other channels in the genre seem to be stable. What should be the reason for this rapid drop in numbers for a single channel?

News viewership is bound to fluctuate, because it is directly linked to new events. In fact you should question the data if it doesn’t. Weeks when there are no big events, the entire genre sees a drop in viewership, which then impacts individual channels as well. On the back of presidential elections and other political events, the news genre has been showing an upward trend again.

Coming to performance of particular channels, it is linked to their coverage, what plays on their screens and how that resonates with viewers. We have examples of channels that were first off the block with a news and retained leadership on that particular coverage. We have seen this not only in Hindi news, but also in the regional space. Look at the recent Ram Rahim coverage. One particular channel ran visuals that no one else had, and gained from it. The numbers for that week reflected that clearly.

How would you explain minimal fluctuation in the English news genre where the No. 2, 3, 4, 5 channels are recording same viewership like before universe update despite the entry of Republic?

Please look at the larger picture. The entire genre and most of the channels have grown in the last couple of months. This has been led by both a new entrant in the genre as well as external factors like important news events.

Landing page is seen as a serious issue, at least until TRAI guidelines on this come into force. Many say that BARC should ensure that channels on landing page must not carry its audio watermark. Since watermark is your domain, what is stopping you from offering this solution to a major problem?

We are not a regulator. And if I have to say that again and again, it reflects lack of understanding of the broadcast sector on the part of those who feel BARC should do something about issues like Landing Page and dual LCN.

We were set up to measure what India watches, and our measurement system delivers exactly that. We measure viewership of a channel on the basis of their unique Watermark ID which is inserted by broadcasters at their end. It is broadcasters and distributors who have to comply with guidelines that regulate their business, and they have to stop watermarking channels available on the landing page.

Panel home tampering was a problem even earlier and it still exits. You think the steps taken by BARC to curb this are helping?

We are taking steps and they are proving effective. But panel infiltration is a problem which has deep roots, and it cannot disappear overnight.

We have a multi-level approach, which is transparent and fair to all sides: there is an on-ground vigilance team that investigates cases flagged by our systems. After that, an independent Disciplinary Committee headed by Justice Mukul Mudgal independently examines reports submitted by the vigilance team. The council meets at regular intervals and this ensures speedy, transparent and fair decisions.

Having said that, there are other challenges. There is no law basis which cases can be filed and action taken against those indulging in viewership malpractice. We have put our point of view across to TRAI and MIB on that front, and they have assured they will look into it. If the regulatory framework can formally recognise this malpractice and provide for action against those indulging in it, it would add teeth to our ongoing efforts.

Of course, once we get our RPD (Return Path Data) going, panel tampering can be curbed to a large extent.

Where are you on RPD? What do you plan to achieve through this?

We are talking to some of the leading DTH and cable players in the country. We are hopeful that we will make some announcements on this soon. With RPD, we aim to substantially scale up our panel home size, curb panel infiltration, further improve accuracy of viewership data and be able to provide household level data.

What’s next for BARC India?

In a short span of two years, we have been able to set up a robust TV viewership measurement system. We will continue to aim for higher levels of excellence to improve our TV measurement service.

To facilitate better understanding of BARC India data, and in fact allow sharper insights into consumer behaviour, we will soon be rolling out several genre specific data visualisation products.

Apart from this, digital viewership measurement is our focus for the coming year, as we recognise the rapid growth of a young and digital India.

Info@BestMediaInfo.com

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