Days before the scheduled return of the ratings for news genre, the consensus is far from building in the TV news industry. On Saturday, NDTV announced it was exiting BARC India, just two weeks before the ratings were to be released.
Just hours before this development, a news story appeared on PTI claiming that BARC India was thinking of deferring the release of data.
In a detailed interview with BestMediaInfo.com, NDTV Group President Suparna Singh explained the reasons behind the news broadcaster's exit from BARC.
Singh said that low sample size to measure ratings is the primary reason behind their decision to pull out.
“Manipulation is very easy with the small sample size that BARC has right now. Even a small-scale rigging of the peoplemeters skews the ratings completely. The larger the sample size, the harder it is to manipulate it. Even with the number of meters currently in use, we never get a straight answer on how many actually are used to measure news and what is the split between Hindi and English news,” Singh said.
“When it comes down to actually expanding the sample size, for some reason, there seems to be some amount of resistance on the part of BARC. Whenever we asked what will it cost to increase the number of meters, we did not get clear answers and explanations,” she added.
Has NDTV misread the situation?
Singh stated that they were assured about the requirement of changes after the cash for rating scam exploded. “We were told that BARC and its board are going to re-evaluate everything. Now when the ratings are on the verge of being resumed, we don’t believe that changes being made are anywhere near substantial. Therefore, we won’t be participating.”
Singh's statement and reason behind NDTV's decision to opt-out imply that the ratings were suspended because of cash for rating scam and the solution promised was significant increase in sample size before the ratings resume.
On the reason behind the suspension of news ratings, BestMediaInfo.com has confirmed on several occasions that the police case involving cash for rating was never the reason behind the suspension of ratings.
BARC India, and even previous rating agency TAM India, in the past, had filed many such FIRs across the country for meter tampering. BARC has been strengthening their vigilance team to stop this menace. It was also not suspended because this time it was a high-profile meter tampering case involving big names.
The real reason behind the suspension of ratings was Acquisory Consulting’s audit report. After the press conference called by Mumbai police to expose the TRP racket, top people in the BARC Board of Directors revisited the audit report in detail. When they sensed the depth of the evidence of corruption, they decided to stop the ratings for the news genre for 8-12 weeks.
The corruption that pushed news broadcasters into the ratings dark period was due to unchecked mannual intervention in processing of outliers coming through landing page, multiple placements of channel on one distribution platform (LCN) and compromised peoplemeters.
It has been highlighted by BestMediaInfo.com several times (here and here) that landing page was “the tool” used by former CEO of BARC India, Partho Dasgupta, to suppress Times Now and benefit Republic TV when it was launched in May 2017.
The forensic report by Acquisory found Republic TV’s final viewership data after outlier cleaning was surprisingly increased by 10, 4 and 3 TVTs in Week 27, 39 and 46 of 2017, respectively. Whereas, around half of the viewership numbers of Times Now were excluded despite the fact that Dasgupta was aware of Republic TV’s landing deals.
For the record, BARC India held a webinar to share details about the changes it has made in processing and presenting the data. An industry insider told BestMediaInfo.com that the checks put in place by BARC were largely convincing.
"BARC may have fallen short of meeting all the expectations from the news broadcasters as it is not possible for them to meet every demand coming from diffferent section of news channels. However, I think the industry was largely convinced with BARC's presentation. I do not remember that BARC India promised to double sample size before resuming TRPs for news channels," the insider said.
Who will fund the large sample?
It may be recalled that the previous television audience measurement agency TAM, at its peak before exiting the ratings business, was claiming to have 8,000 peoplemeters. Out of those 8,000 meters, the industry was estimating only 5,000-5,500 meters were delivering data on a weekly basis.
Presently, BARC India has 44,000 meters. The joint industry body’s revenues were severely hit during pandemic as it gets a certain percentage of advertising revenues of the subscriber channels. Further, due to the suspension of news ratings, the revenues coming from news broadcasters dropped to zero.
The topic of who will fund the expansion of sample size has been always a big question mark. Even when BARC India was in the planning phase, it was four large IBF players who financed Rs 16 crore each and a bank guarantee of above Rs 200 crore to fund the peoplemeters and operations.
As per the information available with BestMediaInfo.com, BARC India has not been able to meet its expenses for the last two years.
Even the government was adamant to increase the sample size, to at least a lakh, before resuming the ratings for the news genre. But stakeholders expressed their inability to spend hundreds of crore in order to meet the demand and promised to do this in a phased manner, which also included integration of Return Path Data (RPD) in the current system. The government then formed a Joint Working Group, headed by Prasar Bharati CEO Shashi Shekhar Vempati to study and integrate the RPD.
When asked about the motive behind pulling out from BARC data in the context of ongoing efforts to strengthen the sample size, Singh said, “Previously, we have sued TAM as well. We sued them in America and at that time there was a jurisdiction issue. Our motive is to have our audience share being reflected correctly. Why should we keep waiting? If ratings are starting now and we know that those ratings are not correct, why would we participate? What should we wait for? It’s not just our demand. It’s a basic requirement that BARC’s sample size cannot be this tiny.”
Airtel RPD numbers behind NDTV’s exit?
Many industry experts BestMediaInfo.com spoke with pointed out that NDTV has seen a ray of hope in Airtel’s commercial release of RPD. BestMediaInfo.com had earlier reported that the DTH company had rolled out RPD with India TV as its first client.
Right before pulling out of BARC, NDTV had put out a communication claiming the fourth position quoting Airtel’s RPD.
When asked if NDTV’s decision to pull out of BARC is based on the performance on Airtel’s RPD, Singh refuted saying that Airtel’s RPD has nothing to do with their decision to opt-out of BARC data.
However, Singh referred to Airtel’s RPD and digital consumption behaviour to establish that BARC data is not reflecting the true measurement of NDTV channels.
“We are very happy to be measured through a larger sample size, whether that is through return path data from DTH providers. We’ll be happy to be part of a measurement system that is reliable, uncorrupted and is third-party data. We have frequently released our digital statistics for our video online. The discrepancy between what we find in terms of our audience online for our TV channels and what BARC reports is huge. Also, the discrepancy between the audience share that RPD allocates to NDTV and what BARC reports is massive. We are not against the measurement system. We just want an honest and reliable measurement system,” Singh said.
Will it backfire?
When BestMediaInfo.com spoke to marketers for their reactions to Airtel’s RPD, they clearly said this is not a true representation of TV viewership as the data only captures connected TVs, as most of the people consume OTT or digital content on those TVs. They also said that at best Airtel’s RPD can be a reference point, but not a currency for them.
When asked if NDTV did a dipstick with its advertisers before pulling out, Singh said, “We believe in our audience and our brand equity. If you look at our financial results, we have done very well while the ratings are not being reported. Our advertisers are not going by what BARC claims about our audience share. We didn’t face any problems during the rating dark period. At no point, does NDTV suggests that we should go only by RPD. We understand that it has its limitations, but at least it’s not fiddled with.”
Despite faring at the bottom in the pecking order on BARC data, advertisers pick NDTV channels for the quality audience. But at the same time, they need a currency to justify their spending. They were using historic data in the ratings dark period for their post-evaluation so far and hence it hardly impacted the legacy brands. It is difficult to say that any of the advertisers on NDTV would not want the data after ratings come back for their post-evaluation and there is a likely situation that many of the advertisers who picked NDTV channels for reach will move out.
When asked if opting out from BARC data may backfire, Singh said, “We are very confident that our decision won’t backfire. NDTV is known for its ethics and news value. We cannot participate in something which is now accepted as corrupt.”