Everybody has for long talked about ratings being “fixed”. It finally took an upright person of absolute stature to take the bull by the horns. Dr Prannoy Roy-led NDTV has filed a $1.4-bn suit in New York against Nielsen, Kantar, TAM alleging fraud, corruption, bribery and negligence. WPP has also been made a defendant
Over the years, one had got used to the whispers, murmurs and seething frustration among a section of broadcasters and some right-thinking stalwarts in certain media agencies over television audience measurement data in the country. Everybody talked about ratings being “fixed”, made suggestions to clean up the system, and matters ended there. It finally took an upright person of absolute stature to take the bull by the horns and say enough is enough. On July 26, 2012, Dr Prannoy Roy-led NDTV filed a suit in New York against The Nielsen Company, Kantar Media Research and TAM India alleging fraud, corruption and negligence. In a 194-page lawsuit, NDTV has sued these entities to the tune of $ 810 million on account of fraud and $ 580 million for negligence.
Dr Roy has achieved just about everything in TV broadcasting, he does not need to win brownie points. It is pure frustration and anger at what he sees is not right. The suit has claimed: “The wrongful actions, and/or the willful inactions, of Nielsen, Kantar and TAM have led to consistent under reporting of viewership ratings for NDTV owned channels over the past eight years.”
The suit has also claimed that Nielsen, Kantar and Tam, besides “abusing their dominant position in the Indian market”, are “also liable for indulging in corrupt practices by manipulating viewership data in favour of channels that are willing to covertly provide monetary inducements / payments / bribes to TAM officials…These payments are accepted and viewership data manipulated as per the requirement of such paying channels.”
One recalls that sometime around the mid-2000s, NDTV had even started to use, albeit for a short while, aMap data rather than TAM data when Raj Nayak used to be the CEO of NDTV Media (he is currently CEO of Colors). The point is that the frustration had been building up for a long while over the state of the ratings system prevailing in the country. But nobody wanted to bell the cat all these years. I remember that at a seminar on TV viewership data held in Delhi sometime around 2006, Chintamani Rao and Lynn De Souza, both highly respected voices in this space, emphasising that a competing ratings agency is not the best solution to the problem. A “single coin for the industry” was always the best option, they said, but it had to be made “robust”. Some worthies from the industry openly claimed from that podium that “manipulation and lack of adequate rigour in the prevailing Peoplemeter system is the industry’s worst kept secret”!
Back then, TAM always argued that they were helpless as subscribers were not willing to invest more. They were perhaps right, as some broadcasters may have found the “fixing” route a cheaper option, as the NDTV suit has claimed.
NDTV has obviously prepared itself well before dragging Nielsen, Kantar and TAM to court with a $1.4 billion suit. And NDTV has also played it smart by going to a New York court. After all, it did not want to be caught in the endless process lasting more than decade at times that the Indian judiciary is notorious for. Remember the Bhopal gas tragedy case? It finally went nowhere. US courts have a far better reputation on cracking down on issues of corruption, especially corporate corruption, and also more fair-handed in deciding on damages.
Interestingly, for the advertising industry, there is a WPP link in terms of its ownership of Kantar, IMRB and TAM, which is a joint venture between Nielsen and Kantar. And WPP also owns GroupM, India’s largest media agency network comprising Mindshare and Maxus and a few more. WPP has also been made a defendant in the NDTV lawsuit.
The suit says that Sir Martin Sorrell, CEO of WPP Plc, the holding company of Kantar, in a public meeting in New Delhi, on August 19, 2011, expressed concern about the possibility of government intervention and a government ordinance to regulate the ratings business. At that meeting, Vikram Chandra, NDTV CEO, told Sir Martin in the presence of at least 20 witnesses that many broadcasters would welcome government intervention because the TAM system was broken. Sir Martin assured Chandra that he would look into the complaint. Despite the said assurance and knowledge regarding the tampering of TAM data, publication of such data continues.
The suit also claims that two critical witnesses in this case are Robert Messemer and Paul Donato who have conducted a full investigation into the manipulation of TAM data. Both Messemer and Donato are based in the US. Furthermore, the actual evidence regarding the manipulation in TAM data is on the laptops seized by Robert Messemer during the course of his investigations in India and taken to the US for further analysis. The seized laptops are still in the US.
On April 3, 2012, a meeting was held between the representatives of NDTV, namely, Rahul Sood, Sidharth Barhate and Anand Mohan Jha, and two field staff employees of TAM (one provided his first name, while the other did not disclose his name) at Ramada Plaza Hotel, Juhu, Mumbai. The TAM employees revealed that they were employed in Mumbai to look after, and collect data from, TAM meters. They stated they were willing to manipulate TAM ratings in Mumbai. They showed their identity cards and represented themselves as TAM employees. They also showed TAM manuals to the representatives of NDTV and explained how the meters operate, and the number of meters /areas that they looked after. They were also aware of NDTV’s ratings. They had been in touch with NDTV representative as mentioned above, therefore, during the meeting they insisted upon NDTV’s permission to activate the system at the earliest so that NDTV could see prompt results of high TRPs as promised by these persons. They claimed to have effected manipulations in the past for other channels and were willing provide the same “services” for “any” channel that was ready to pay the demanded consideration (bribe). They were confident that they could triple channel ratings of NDTV in Mumbai over a period of two to three weeks in the required target group. They stated they had direct access to homes and visited those homes periodically (at least 3 to 4 times a week) and were in a position to easily influence what the households watched/viewed. They said by paying a bribe of US$250 to US$500 per household per month, the TAM households could be made to watch only those channels which they insisted upon. They further informed the NDTV representatives that although they knew Krishnan and the TAM senior management, they needed to be in immediate touch with TAM supervisory level employees for execution of their illegal tasks.
This meeting was viewed by an external surveillance agency, which took photographs of the employees. Those photographs were shown to Messemer in New Delhi on April 27, 2012. Another meeting was held on April 3, 2012 at Sahara Star with a broadcaster. The said person was a Research Analyst and Regional Distribution Manager. He explained how the TV ratings were manipulated by competitor channels.
Additionally, the lack of funding by Nielsen and Kantar is the underlying cause that has led to the corruption of TAM data. The primary reason that data could be so easily manipulated in India was due to the persistent refusal of Nielsen and Kantar to provide adequate funds for TAM to increase its sample size and invest in the systems/quality/security procedures.
NDTV has also claimed top executives at Nielsen had promised to make changes by July 1, 2012, but reneged on their commitments.
There is no doubt that a lot of worms will come out as the case gets going in New York. A lot of reputations would be permanently scarred. Many cozy relationships would be broken up. NDTV may not be concerned so much about the compensation, but it has done enough to ensure that the television audience measurement undergoes a sea change in India in the near future.