Is Republic Bharat flouting TRAI regulations for TRPs?

Three channels have filed complaints against Republic Bharat with TRAI.

ByCherry Agarwal
Is Republic Bharat flouting TRAI regulations for TRPs?
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Within days of Republic Bharat’s launch, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) has received three complaints against the channel. It has been alleged that the channel is in violation of broadcast sector regulations as laid down by TRAI.

The complaint was filed by three of Republic Bharat’s competitors: TV Today network which owns Aaj Tak, India TV and TV18.

According to one of the complaints, the ARG Outlier Media Private Limited-owned channel is being placed outside its declared genre, which is Hindi news. The complaint states that this is the broadcaster’s deliberate attempt to illegally garner higher BARC ratings and increase viewership. Broadcast Audience Research Council India (BARC India) is a joint initiative of broadcasters, advertising agencies and advertisers to calculate and analyse TV viewership data.

The reason for this, the complaint states, is to ensure that Republic Bharat gets sampled in non-Hindi news genre. Such genre, the complaint states, has much better viewership and ratings when compared with the Hindi news genre. According to TRAI guidelines, all channels carried by an operator’s network can be indexed to allow consumers to easily access and select channels. This indexing is called Electronic Programme Guide (EPG). The guidelines also require broadcasters to declare the genre of their channels, while the multi-system operators (MSO) are mandated to place these channels in their respective genre such as news and current affairs, general entertainment, sports, kids, music etc under the EPG. Each channel is provided with a unique logical channel number (LCN), including the landing page, and can appear in only one genre. When a channel is being broadcast across more than one genre, this guideline is violated.

Republic Bharat has also been accused of using the landing pages of close to 100 distribution platforms to broadcast its content. A landing page is a channel that the television screen opens up to once the set-top box is switched on.

This is not the first time that an ARG Outlier-owned channel has been accused of listing itself on multiple channels. In May 2017, Newslaundry had reported on News Broadcasting Association’s complaint to TRAI. Back then, the NBA had accused Republic TV of listing itself on multiple channel numbers across different genres on various cable networks. Back then, the English news channel Republic TV, if viewed on Den in New Delhi, could be seen on channel number 368 under the English news genre and on channel number 310 under the Hindi news category.

So, who’s responsible?
Placement of channels is one of the activities of a distributor, TRAI secretary Sunil K Gupta told Newslaundry. Gupta also confirmed the receipt of three complaints by three broadcasters and stated that they are being examined by TRAI. He also clarified that the complaint is primarily against several distribution platform operators (DPOs). This is because it is the DPOs who have placed Republic Bharat on more than one LCN.

Speaking about Republic Bharat’s role, Gupta said: “Republic Bharat cannot put the channel anywhere. We have to look into the allegations against the DPOs. We have to see whether there are evidences or material which can indicate the indulgence of Republic Bharat as well. Unless we have that information, I cannot comment on the channel’s role.”

It is important to note that MSOs generate anything between Rs 5 crore to Rs 20 crore annually through monetisation of landing pages. The monetisation of landing pages becomes an issue when it is used to enhance viewership ratings.

When asked for a confirmation about the number of operators against whom the complaint was made, Gupta said: “I think it will be too premature to comment on the number of DPOs at this point in time. Let it be examined first.”

However, the TRAI secretary added that a large number of DPOs have been named.

Gupta added that the DPOs have to be given at least seven days to respond. While TRAI has reached out to some of the platform operators already, it is in the process of examining the allegations against others.

Given that this isn’t the first instance where such a violation is taking place, what steps can be taken to remedy the situation? The only solution is to fix a penalty or take punitive action, Gupta said. He added that violations of the regulations and the actions to be taken are provided in the Act itself.

With the complaint still under examination, Gupta refused to comment on DPOs broadcasting Republic under non-prescribed genres.

Newslaundry also reached out to Roop Sharma, President, Cable Operators Federation of India, Republic Editor-in-Chief Arnab Goswami and spokespersons of BARC India. This article will be updated if and when they respond.

Does it matter if a channel is being broadcast on a landing page?

As reported by Newslaundry, there are three scenarios involving 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 LCN. For instance, a channel originally listed on 356 is also hosted on the 001, which typically hosts advertisements.
  1. 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 (STB), that channel becomes the landing page.
  1. If a channel is listed on dual LCN but does not appear on the landing page.

The problem with any of these practices is that they have the potential of influencing TV viewership numbers.

A consultation paper published by TRAI on April 3, 2018, states that “placing the channels on landing page may be a powerful tool in influencing and artificially inflating the ratings of a TV channel. This practice may lead to a sudden hike in television rating in a very short span of time.” The paper also states that this can distort a well-established ecosystem.

The reasons for this include:

  1. A channel broadcast on a landing channel may even be available to subscribers who have not opted for the channel irrespective of the channel being paid for or free to air.
  2. In most cases, landing pages allow the distributor to display content for a predefined duration before the subscriber can switch to another channel. “This time period attains criticality and may influence television rating,” the paper states.
  3. Given that each distributor has a single LCN, therefore, there is no possibility of placing any other channel on the same LCN simultaneously. This would give the channel being broadcast on the landing page unfair advantage.
  4. The channels being broadcast on landing pages also enjoy advantageous positions in cases where the customer is switching on the TV multiple times, when the STB is switched on but the subscriber is going through the EPG or in cases where the power supply is erratic where the TV may get switched with opening up to the landing page.

All these reasons suggest that if channels–for which viewership and reach are calculated–are placed on landing pages, it would allow such a channel to show enhanced reach compared to other channels placed in other LCNs. The competing broadcaster may see it as a discriminatory practice, the paper states.

In a May 2017 notification, TRAI had also warned MSOs against placing channels at more than one LCN under multiple genres simultaneously. “The authority views such practice as a material non-compliance of the extant regulatory framework prescribed by it,” the notification had stated.

Update: On Feb 22, TRAI issued directions to distributors of television channels regarding listing of channels on the EPG.  The notification stated that TRAI had received several complaints alleging “transmission of television channels on dual LCN or placement of television channels by distributors of TV channels out of the genre declared by the broadcaster”. The notification also directed all distributors to “ensure that television channels of the same genre, as declared by the broadcasters, are placed together and consecutively and one channel shall appear at one place only, failing which action shall be taken against such distributors under the provisions of the TRAI Act”.

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