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ED probe in TRP scam leaves many unanswered questions

ED in its chargesheet has exonerated Republic TV from the charges of manipulating TRPs. According to ED, Dual LCN does not impact viewership and Acquisory forensic report is bogus

The Enforcement Directorate (ED) chargesheet in the TRP scam raises more questions than it answers as far as the allegations of manipulating viewership data against Republic TV are concerned.

The probe first began in the matter with the registration of a first information report by the Mumbai Police on October 6, 2020, in which Republic TV was accused of bribing five panel homes in order to inflate TRPs.

Moreover, the two subsequent chargesheets by the Mumbai Police revealed that the matter went beyond mere fixing of a few meters in 2020 and the rot was much deeper dating back to the birth of Republic TV in 2017. broke the incriminating details of regular chats between Arnab Goswami and BARC India’s former CEO Partho Dasgupta which allegedly hinted at a larger conspiracy to keep Republic TV at No. 1 rank from the first week of its launch.

The Mumbai Police chargesheet alleged the larger conspiracy on three key allegations  – rampant usage of Dual LCN by Republic which is declared illegal by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India; manipulations of rankings of channels on the basis of Acquisory’s consulting report; and the alleged incriminating digital evidences in the form of chats.

Bribing households has time and again written that there were many instances of bribing metered homes in the history of TRPs in India and in many cases there were FIRs filed by BARC and TAM. Most of the time, the accused broadcasters were let go after the videos were found manufactured by the competing channels.

However, there were very few actions taken by the rating agencies after charges were proved.

Now, the probe conducted by the ED and conclusions drawn on the basis of it are totally at variance with the investigation conducted by the Mumbai police.

Under the point 4.2 – Analysis of Raw Data, ED’s finding says: “In total, statements of 32 HHs were recorded who confirmed having received money for watching certain channels. Some of the statements were contrary to the statement given to Mumbai Police in as much that “they denied watching Republic TV or Republic Bharat channel”.

There are other references too about Republic TV in the chargesheet.

For example, the chargesheet further reads, “…there were 4 more RMs namely Kahesh Bompally, Ashwin Motiwale, Vikas Burungale, Rajesh Kumar Vishwakarma, who were taking money and inducing Panel HHs, to watch a particular channel. Here also these RMs denied “receiving gratification for inducing watch Republic channel”.

“It is seen from the above table that the above-said households either “not watched Republic TV or Republic Bharat or not having substantial viewership of these channels”.”

“These HHs denied having taken money for watching Republic TV or Republic Bharat.”

There is a number of such references given regarding Republic TV spread across the chargesheet raising questions about the intentions of ED’s investigations.

Dual/Multiple LCN

Even before the Mumbai police initiated a probe into the TRP scam, there were allegations that Republic resorted to the illegal practice of using Dual/Multiple LCN to inflate its viewership.

Even ED’s chargesheet has mentioned that Republic channels along with others resorted to the illegal practice citing Chrome Data Analytics report.

However, curiously it seems, the ED didn’t give much importance to the impact this illegal tool in analysing viewership data.

Basis a statement from Pulak Banerjee, Vice President, BARC India, ED’s concluded that “BARC is of the view that Dual LCN does not impact the accuracy or precision of BARC's audience viewership estimates”.

But this conclusion of the ED is totally different from the views of the TRAI to TDSAT to government to the industry, who all have held the dual placement of a channel in different genres illegal.

Acquisory’s forensic audit

This is the most important part of all the rot in the entire TRP scam.

The forensic audit was commissioned because the BARC board was convinced about the wrongdoings by its own functionaries. Partho Dasgupta, the then CEO of BARC, was first sacked and then the audit was ordered against the people involved in the wrongdoing.

In order to call the audit bogus, ED relied upon the statements of the accused people including BARC India’s former COO Romil Ramgarhia, Ex-Head of Partnership (West) Rushabh Mehta and Ex-Executive Vice-President Mubin Khan.

ED accepted on face value all their clarifications about their email exchanges basis which Acquisory had alleged wrongdoing.

“It looks an audit of the forensic audit itself was done to rubbish the Acquisory report. It’s like turning a blind eye towards the difference in reruns of numbers and changes in the rankings,” said an industry veteran who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

While the rules like Meta and outliers were meant to change/reduce the numbers arising from any anomalies, the accused people were found discussing the rankings of certain channels in the email conversations under question. And deciding the ranking is seen as manipulation.

ED chargesheet further says that the mandate of Acquisory was to look into irregularities done by a few individuals who had access to Raw data, however, the report only relied on the email communication and never examined the raw data (the same was not shared as well, as the mandate was limited).

However, found the relevant raw data vs final data graph from the Acquisory report in January 2021 which was a part of the supplementary chargesheet of Mumbai Police.

On several occasions, following an analysis of the Mumbai police chargesheet, reported how the viewership data of Times Now was reduced drastically from raw to final to keep Republic No. 1. Not only this, Republic’s numbers were not touched in the weeks between July to October. It was the same period when Republic TV chief Arnab Goswami had chats with Partho Dasgupta from which it could be concluded that his channel was present on landing page of Kolkata’s largest MSO ICNCL.

More interestingly, ED again took BARC’s former COO Ramgarhia’s response at face value in which he claimed to have vigilance inputs from the ground that led to a massive reduction in viewership numbers of Times Now.

While the show cause notice was sent to Times Now in November 2017 regarding purported videos of meter fixing, the viewership numbers of Times Now were reduced since May. ED didn’t give weightage to the fact whether the vigilance input meant meter fixing or landing pages.

If it was about landing pages, Ramgarhia along with Dasgupta were very much aware of the massive landing and dual LCN used by both Republic and Times Now. But if it was about alleged meter fixing, why did BARC take six months to issue a show cause notice to Times Now?

WhatsApp chats

The Mumbai Police relied on details gleaned from the WhatsApp chats between Partho Dasgupta and Arnab Goswami and they were made part of the supplementary chargesheet. But the ED didn’t put much reliance on the WhatsApp chats.

“The chats could have had huge corroborative value if they are read with viewership data of that point in time,” added the industry veteran.

Contesting ED’s chargesheet

While the ED drew conclusions on its probe against Republic TV giving it a clean chit but it chose not to do so in case of two competitors of Republic – Times Now and India Today and it led to allegations of bias and connivance with Goswami.

It looks these questions will get answers only during the trial now.

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