The Broadcast Audience Research Council (BARC), the body that carries out TV audience measurement in India, has decided to penalise three news channels for attempting to tamper with their respective ratings. BARC will not be issuing ratings for these channels – Hindi news channel India News and Telugu news channels TV9 Telugu and V6 News – for four weeks, starting from week 46 (November 12 to November 18) to week 49 (December 3 to December 9).
An email sent by BARC to its subscribers said the decision was taken “due to suspected malafide practices” of the channels. Newslaundry sent an email to BARC Chief Executive Officer Partho Dasgupta for his comment on the issue, to which a response is awaited.
The charge levelled against the channels is that they artificially enhanced their viewership figures by bribing members of BARC ‘panel homes’ into watching their channels. BARC installs BAR-O-meters in these homes, which record what members of the household watch throughout the day. Currently, there are around 22,000 homes with BAR-O-meters installed, out of which 20,000 are active. Based on the data, BARC provides viewership figures to its subscribers, which constitute channels and advertisers.
While the BAR-O-meter records which channel is being watched, a separate hand-held remote control unit is also provided to panel homes. The remote control unit is equipped with buttons that are assigned to each member of the home, which helps BARC know which family member is viewing which channel. Over a period of time, this helps in defining the viewership trends within a home — the father who watches sports channels, the mother who watches news channels, and so on. It is thus possible for BARC to notice an aberration in the viewing patterns of the panel home, which could be a sign of tampering.
According to an industry expert, who wished to remain anonymous, this helps BARC detect whether data is being padded by channels. “Suppose you’re a panel home and you’re a sports buff and an English movie buff but one day suddenly you start watching a Bangla channel. The system immediately sends out a red flag and there’s a vigilance team in place which probes into it,” he explained. If there’s a reasonable justification for the change in viewership trends – suppose a relative from Bengal is visiting – the matter is dropped; otherwise, further cross-checking is done and channels are given an opportunity to explain themselves, he added. In this case, there were also complaints from rival channels, which prompted an enquiry. Only after the investigation is complete a decision is taken, he said, clarifying that such a step is never a “knee-jerk reaction”.
However, Varun Kohli, Chief Executive Officer, India News, in a statement released following BARC’s announcement, said the channel was “shocked” by the development. “We are shocked to hear this and are trying to talk to all the stakeholders including BARC to resolve the matter and address any misgivings.” Kohli also said the channel intended on getting to “the bottom of the matter” and is “exploring all the options available” to them. Despite repeated attempts, Newslaundry could not independently reach Kohli for his comment.
Meanwhile, Ravi Ankam, chief editor of Telugu channel V6 News, also expressed his shock at BARC’s decision. “We ourselves are very shocked at this,” he wrote in an email response to Newslaundry. “I’m sure there has been a mistake and we have a meeting set with the BARC management.” He also denied BARC’s charge, writing that “the management would never depend on such unnecessary manipulation” and that the channel has not witnessed “any abnormal increase in our ratings since the initiation of BARC”.
Newslaundry also tried to contact Mr Ravi Prakash, CEO of TV9 Telugu, but he did not respond to numerous calls and text messages.
The channels do have an opportunity to appeal the decision, an official in the know told Newslaundry. If the channels can come up with other explanations for the spike in ratings, the matter would be reviewed by the BARC ethics committee, he added. It is also unlikely that BARC would initiate legal proceedings against these channels, as it is the rival channels that are the real “affected parties”. For BARC, the issue is more about maintaining its “reputation and brand value”, which is why this decision would send a clear message to all BARC-associated channels that doctoring data would not be tolerated, he concluded.