The fact that the News Broadcasting Association (NBA) has failed spectacularly in affecting any sort of self-regulation in the television media space is no secret.
Remember l’áffaire Rajat Sharma? Back in 2009, the India TV chairman and editor-in-chief extended a giant metaphorical middle finger to NBA members who sought to penalise his channel for plagiarism, if you can call it that. India TV had dubbed policy analyst Farhana Ali’s interview to Reuters in Hindi and pretended that it was an interview to them. (Full marks for ingenuity.)
It is perhaps because of this first bad date with self-regulation that NBA does not touch on journalistic ethics in its stated mission. Instead, the private body comprising 23 news broadcasters, emphasises that it will act as a “central point of joint action on matters of interest”. Towards that end, it sent a “MOST URGENT” complaint to the chairman of Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) accusing Republic TV of cocking a snook at TRAI’s notification, dated March 3, 2017.
If your head is buzzing with all the legalese, NBA is essentially accusing Republic TV of listing itself on multiple channel numbers across different genres on various cable networks. For example, on Den in New Delhi, you could catch Republic TV on channel number 368 under the English news genre and on channel number 310 under the Hindi news category.
On Hathway, in Bengaluru, you could catch Republic TV on channel number 430 under the English news category and on channel number 41 in the Music and Radio section. Because Arnab Goswami’s strident voice may well be music to someone’s ears.
This dual listing as the NBA points out is in violation of the TRAI regulation which states that each channel can appear at “one place only” under one specified category.
What NBA doesn’t mention, though, is that Republic TV is only following a trend set by legacy television media.
This practice, in fact, is so common that it even has a name – dual frequency, or more colloquially, double heading. And guess what? Many private broadcasters actually subscribe for data that tells them which channel is “double heading” on what cable operator across India, so as to keep a healthy eye on competition.
Speaking to Newslaundry, Pankaj Krishna, Founder and Chief Executive Officer, Chrome Data and Analytics, a primary research and data analytics company says, “This is fairly common practice. We see this occur on Budget days — most business news channels end up being on dual LCN [local channel number] on the day of the finance minister’s Budget speech. The objective could be to monetise the simplest law of probability on the ratings.” He added that news channels usually adopt this practice.
Krishnan is on the money.
Before the TRAI notification of March 3, 2017, there have indeed been instances of channels being on dual LCN. For instance, India Today when it rebranded itself from Headlines Today in 2015, listed itself on Hindi as well as English news channels. Back then, Times Now – with Arnab Goswami as its editor-in-chief – was also broadcasting itself on multiple frequencies. This year, ET Now had complained against CNBC TV18, stating that the latter’s Budget day ratings had seen a spike owing to multiple frequency feeds.
So, what prompted NBA to complain against Republic TV now?
NBA Secretary General Annie Joseph declined to elaborate and said she cannot comment on “internal matters of the NBA”. Our repeated attempts to get in touch with NBA President Ashish Bagga, who is CEO of India Today Group, did not yield any response. Republic TV CEO Vikas Kanchandani also did not respond to our queries. We also reached out to Chief Executive Officer of Times TV Network, MK Anand, but could not get a response.
NBA’s legal counsel, Nisha Bhambani said Republic TV’s dual broadcast was against TRAI regulations. “The regulations said no channels are to be beyond multi LCN. So, they’ve [NBA] written to TRAI to take action against Republic and get them off the various LCN,” she told Newslaundry.
A look at data available with Chrome Data and Analytics, however, presents a more telling picture. While it is true that most channels have indulged in double heading, the scale at which Republic TV seems to be doing so is massive.
According to Chrome Data and Analytics, between May 6 and May 12, Republic TV was on dual LCN on 54 cable networks across India. It was on triple frequency (i.e. on three different channel numbers) on six cable networks. Contrast this with Times Now, which was on dual LCN on 19 cable networks. Among the Hindi channels, the top three violators, so to speak, include Aaj Tak, India News and Zee News, but they are nowhere close to the channel numbers that Republic TV managed. (It is noteworthy that India Today asked its viewers to bring to its attention any instance of double frequency yesterday and has called it an “aberration”.)
Top three English channels on multiple frequencies between May 6 and May 12.
Top three Hindi channels on multiple frequencies between May 6 and May 12.
Whether the above data is just an aberration can only be ascertained after a complete audit of data on double frequency, especially from the time since TRAI sent its March 2017 order. While we do not subscribe to this data, most channels do and nothing stops them from putting this out there or sharing it with us.
What this could mean is a significant bump in Television Rating Points for Republic TV. After all, TV channels are not showing up on multiple channel numbers out of affection or concern for you the news viewer. The end game is to increase TRPs (read more advertisements) by getting you to “tune into” channels twice or thrice as you surf through the idiot box. (Such practices are a logical outcome of the ad-driven model, which is why this is a good time to reiterate that you should Pay To Keep News Free.)
While it is intense competition for numbers that has triggered double heading by channels, the economics of it is worth keeping in mind. How much would a channel like Republic TV or Times Now have to pay a cable operator to book two or three slots? As it is in such cases, no one we asked wanted to discuss real numbers, even as one industry watcher told us it completely depends on the deal the channel cracks with the cable operators.
Cable Operators Federation of India President Roop Sharma, told Newslaundry that there was no way we would be able to get anyone to open up on the money involved, especially after demonetisation. According to her, NBA’s complaint is a case of vendetta against a new entrant in the market. “This is a frivolous complaint because they feel threatened that there is a new news channel in the industry.” She said members of the NBA were themselves flouting TRAI regulations when it comes to dual frequency and added that they were in no position to complain against anyone. “The members (of NBA) themselves are flouting all laws. Why isn’t action being taken against them?” says Sharma.
She also stated that dual broadcast was not a new thing. “Every channel has been doing this for a long time now”, she told Newslaundry.
For now, it appears that NBA’s complaint to TRAI seems to have worked in getting Republic TV off double frequencies. As of yesterday (May 16), Den in New Delhi and Hathway in Bengaluru have taken the channel off from 310 and 41 respectively. The ultimate test of how much this exercise has impacted English TV news will be out on Thursday when BARC releases data for Week 19 that will factor in the existence of Republic TV. Since NBA’s complaint has put the spotlight on dual frequency, it will be interesting to see if TV channels come to a consensus to end this practice for good. Meanwhile, we’d like to keep a keen eye on channels that double head to see if the trend continues. Drop us a message in the comments sections if you spot this happening on your cable operator.