On September 5, the Broadcast Audience Research Council (BARC) received a letter from the Information and Broadcasting Ministry directing the television audience ratings body to stop publishing ratings of certain channels, and stop rating channels that violated regulations of the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), according to bestmediainfo.com.
The ministry’s reservations lay in how some news channels used landing pages to capture higher viewership by increasing their channel’s presence. BARC, however, continues to publish the ratings for all the channels as of week 36 (between September 2 and September 8).
In June this year, Republic TV Editor-in-Chief Arnab Goswami had alleged that Times Now’s ratings were a result of “forced reach”. “Times Now’s landing across networks in megacities and the impact thereof is forced reach as the BARC meters at 7 seconds of view and this is resulting in the reach. This reach is not organic,” he had told The Quint.
He alleged Times Now had tied up with local cable networks to be listed on their landing page that led to the channel’s inflated ratings. In response to Goswami’s allegation, Times Now had said the channel had listed itself on a better frequency that “money can buy”. “If Republic TV is incapable of spending that or wants to save that money, that’s really a profit and loss call,” it said.
Since then, here is how the two channels have indulged in a jibe-fest every Thursday when BARC publishes its ratings. While one alleges using money for “forced reach”, the other mocks the “placard journalism” of its competitor.
The ‘landing’ business
The landing page is the channel you see on your TV when you switch on your set-top box. But buying landing pages is just one way of increasing your channel’s opportunity to appear on your TV sets. According to Chrome Data Analytics and Media, there are three scenarios of landing pages:
1. If a channel has bought the landing page of a cable network besides being listed on their own frequency
This means, when a viewer switches on his/her set-top box, it lands on the channel directly besides being available in its original logical channel number (LCN). For instance, a channel originally listed on 356 is also hosted on the 001, which typically hosts advertisements.
2. If a channel has listed itself as the landing page without dual LCN
This means that a channel is listed on only one frequency, for instance, 345, but when a viewer switches on their set-top box, that channel becomes the landing page.
3. If a channel is listed on dual LCN but does not appear on the landing page
This means that a channel is listed on two frequencies within different genres, something that has been alleged by many channels in the past against their competitors.
Newslaundry had reported in May detailing how this practice by Republic TV had prompted the National Broadcasters Association (NBA) writing to TRAI seeking a stay on publishing Republic TV’s ratings until they stopped doing it.
While BARC continued to publish the ratings even then, all other English news channels had walked out of the ratings system, only to return within a week. But the hoopla around the violation of TRAI regulations had led to many channels withdrawing from dual LCNs.
But Roop Sharma, president of Cable Operators Federation of India, said channels stop doing it for some time and then get back into it. For instance, a generous Newslaundry subscriber shared this with us:
Subsequent to Republic TV‘s dual broadcast on DEN Network under the English and Hindi news genre, Times Now took cognisance of this and filed a plaint with TRAI and DEN on September 11. “We demand immediate action from TRAI in this regard. Inaction by TRAI is leading to continuous exploitation and is detrimental to other channels of the same genre, inter alia Times Now,” the complaint to TRAI reads. While it asked DEN Networks to “refrain from such practices”, as of this day, Republic TV‘s broadcast on dual frequency has stopped, at least in Delhi, but we are not sure if it was consequent to Times Now‘s complaint.
Perhaps, this has been brought to TRAI’s notice on many occasions.
Pankaj Krishna, founder and CEO of Chrome Data Analytics and Media, said a channel’s presence on landing pages doesn’t really affect its ratings as long it is it not listed on dual LCN.
“We support the ministry’s decision of preventing channels using unethical routes to enhance their viewership, for example, if a channel opts for dual LCN, the others are compelled to follow it to safeguard their numbers, consequently causing the spiralling effect of increased carriage fees. However, a landing page is purely a promotional exercise,” he said. “As long as a channel is not running on dual LCN, there is nothing unethical about the concept of channels using landing pages,” he added.
As of week 35, the Chrome DM Landing page report shows that there are over 400 landing pages active across various cable networks, 35 of them being English news channels.
Source: Chrome DM Landing Channel Report
But how much of an impact does a landing page (say if a channel has bought one) have on the ratings, even if it is not unethical? A landing page increases a channel’s probability of being viewed but this may not always result in a spike in ratings or viewership. While this only increases a channel’s availability on a cable network, sometimes, it could translate into viewership.
As per Chrome DM data, a channel may have an increased viewership between 4 to 18 per cent, depending on the target audience of a particular cable operator of a particular demographic. For instance, if a channel is available on a landing page in a particular demography that is not the target audience of the channel, the ratings may not see a spike then. Sample this analogy, when you scroll through your Google Playstore and an app is more visible, it leads to impulse (read more) downloads.
Sharma said the business of buying landing pages has been going on for quite some time. “What is the violation in this? They are marketing their channel on landing pages because they can afford it,” she said.
When asked about the economics of this, Sharma said broadcasters are not as transparent as newspapers — for instance, it is easier to know the rates of a front page ad of a newspaper but it’s not the same with broadcasters or multi-service operators (MSOs). “Neither the broadcaster nor the MSOs are transparent about landing rates,” she said. However, as per Chrome DM’s assessment, an MSO generates anything between Rs 5 crore to Rs 20 crore annually through monetisation of landing pages.
It is known that all channels have, in the past, used at least one of the three ways mentioned above for more visibility and ratings. Several complaints, forms of protests and on-air jibes have not put a complete stop to the practice. Will TRAI act on the ministry’s directive to BARC?
The author can be contacted on Twitter @shrutimenon10.