It's a bit complicated.
Within its short lifespan of about a month, Republic TV and its commander-in-chief Arnab Goswami managed to ruffle quite a few feathers. The channel has been dragged to court for defamation, intellectual property theft and flouting the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India rules. While the first two cases are essentially battles between private citizens and companies — their impact on media discourse notwithstanding — it is the third case that concerns you, the viewer.
This isn’t just a battle between the National Broadcasters Association (NBA) and Republic, but a war for your attention and what comes with it — TRPs and advertisements.
The numbers game
On May 18, Republic TV was placed on the top of the ratings table by Broadcast Audience Research Council (BARC). This came close on the heels of NBA’s accusation that Republic had been flouting TRAI regulations by listing itself on multiple channel numbers across different genres on various cable networks. (You can read our detailed story on this here.)
To cut a long story short, NBA — which comprises 23 private news broadcasters, including India Today, NDTV, Times Now and CNN News18 — believed that Republic TV‘s ratings were “inflated and corrupt” because of the channel being on multiple frequencies. NBA urged BARC to hold on to the ratings for Week 19, that would begin to factor in Republic TV. BARC, however, released the data stating that dual frequency was a standard practice. In protest, English news broadcasters in NBA pulled out of BARC’s ratings system.
A day before the boycott, on May 17, TV Today Network (TVTN) filed a writ petition at the Delhi High Court (HC) against Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (MIB), Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), BARC and ARG Outlier Media Asianet News Pvt Ltd.
The petition pertained to Republic TV’s “malpractice” of operating in multiple frequencies on various Multiple System Operators (MSOs) and violating the Telecommunication (Broadcasting and Cable) Services Interconnection (Addressable Systems) Regulations, 2017.
On May 24, the Delhi HC partly heard the petition filed by TVTN. On the next day, that is May 25, after Justice Sanjeev Sachdeva heard the arguments of both sides and the petition was “dismissed as withdrawn” as per the Delhi HC order, a copy of which has been assessed by Newslaundry. TVTN was represented by LPJ and Partners, while Republic TV was represented by Phoenix Legal.
Soon after the HC passed its order, Republic TV declared its victory in court against TVTN’s plea with graphics plates that read “Truth wins in court”, “India Today plea turned down”, “Republic TV stands vindicated” and “Big victory for Republic TV”.
Similarly, India Today also declared its victory during their primetime debate on “Caste wars in Saharanpur” on May 25. “India Today wins”, “Victory for India Today in court”, “Court tells TRAI to investigate”, “India Today withdraws case”, “Any other claim is distortion,” read the channel’s ticker band.
While both channels claimed victory, here’s what really happened in court.
Mirror mirror on the wall
When the petition was presented in the court, the petitioner, that is TVTN’s legal counsel Dr Abhishek Manu Singhvi, asked TRAI to issue a notice to Republic TV and other channels that were allegedly broadcasting on multiple frequencies. He also sought to prohibit BARC from publishing ratings of the channels that didn’t comply with TRAI regulations.
However, the legal counsel representing Republic TV, Ramji Srinivasan argued that the channel was only broadcasting in one genre under “news and current affairs” and denied having declared the channel under multiple genres.
After this, the legal counsel appearing for TRAI, Kirtimann Singh, said that the telecom regulator was investigating the allegations made by TVTN. He argued that it wasn’t just Republic TV but complaints against other channels, including TVTN, that were also under investigation. (Newslaundry had earlier pointed out that operating on dual and multiple frequencies is a fairly common industry practice to spike up numbers.)
By the end of the hearing, both TVTN and Republic TV declared that they were broadcasting on a single frequency, Singhvi did not “wish to press the present petition” and reserved the right to approach TRAI if need be. This pretty much settled the matter and the petition was “dismissed as withdrawn” by Justice Sachdeva.
It is noteworthy that the court “neither examined nor opined on the contentions of either the petitioner or the respondents”.
Following Justice Sachdeva’s decision, BARC informed Newslaundry that all the five channels were back into BARC’s fold and that the business of ratings would continue as usual.
What changed for all channels to be back in the BARC ratings? And what of allegations of dual frequencies? Attempts to contact NBA’s general secretary Annie Joseph and chairman Ashish Bagga for answers did not elicit any response.
Peas in a pod
The important thing here is that channels were willing to drag each other to court and deploy what must be fairly pricey law firms for one thing and one thing alone — to count as numero uno or at least among the top five in the ratings chart. This is because the television news model depends on advertisements and those depend on the eyeballs channels manage to garner.
A report published by GroupM (a media agency owned by WPP) titled ‘This Year Next Year’ (TYNY) 2017 released in February, observed that advertising spend in the media sector is estimated to grow 30 per cent in the digital space and eight per cent in the television media space this year.
“Traditional media channels will continue to dominate, with ad expenditure on television expected to grow eight per cent,” the report states.
While ad spend in the digital news space is on the rise, television media still holds the top spot in terms of absolute numbers, English, Hindi and regional media combined. Advertising expenditure on television media is expected to grow to Rs 27,378 crore as opposed to last year’s forecast which stood at Rs 25,350 crore. However, according to Chrome Data Analytics and Media, a primary research and data analytics company, English news genre has only 0.07 per cent total viewership in the urban space as compared to Hindi news genre that has a viewership of 3.78 per cent.
Pankaj Krishna, Founder and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Chrome Data Analytics, told Newslaundry that though there is a huge gap between viewership of English and Hindi News, the ad spend doesn’t have a similar gap. “The gap is advertising is not so much. Though the viewership is exactly 150 times, the revenue gap is not as steep,” he said.
Krishna added that advertising for English news is only partly dependent on ratings. “English news sells partly on ratings but a lot of it sells on perception in terms of quality of audiences,” he said. “So, if you’re watching English news, you’re likely to be educated and you’re likely to be in need for information. You’re an upmarket audience. So, depending on the brand, they advertise on English news.”
An industry expert told Newslaundry that advertisers look at positions of the channels on the ratings table more than the impressions. “They look at whether you’re number one or two or three,” the expert said. For instance, hypothetically, if Republic TV has delivered over 2,000 impressions as against Times Now that may have delivered 1,700 impressions, advertisers would make a decision based on the positions these channels hold in the ratings table than the number of impressions recorded. “In a small market like English news, which has a very small viewership and very less money is spent on it, almost the entire ad spend is taken up by number one and number two. Number three are just wrappers,” the expert said. “So, it is very critical for them [TV channels] to maintain their number two position or at most their number three position.”
This pretty sums up the crux of the drama we witnessed between NBA and Republic for much of last month.
Of course, you could argue that channels could simply get TRPs by focussing on quality programming than resorting to tricks like dual frequencies or taking each other to court. However, in today’s TV news climate it isn’t quality programming that gets the numbers, but Bigg Boss-style reality TV news that wins the game — something that Goswami has perfected and his apprentices in other channels are working hard to match. In all of this, no one really has the time to think of content that caters to and respects viewers.
So long as the ad-driven model remains, expect more public spats for TRPs between TV channels. Of course, you, the news consumer, can change that if you decide to pay to keep news free. See what we did there?
The author can be contacted on Twitter @shrutimenon10.