Which is India’s No. 1 English news channel: Republic TV or Times Now? Well, nobody knows the answer because we’re in the dark when it comes to channel ratings as the investigation into the alleged rigging of TRPs is underway.
It’s been nearly three months since the scam-hit Broadcast Audience Research Council – which claims to be the world’s largest audience measurement company – suspended the publication of weekly individual ratings for all English, regional and business news channels. And uncertainty still shrouds its resumption.
Before its launch in May 2017, Republic TV had allegedly joined hands with several cable TV operators across the country to install its channel as the de-facto landing page. The idea was to ensure that “bar-o-meters” – an audience measurement tool installed by BARC to measure the viewing habits of TV audiences – noted the channel as being “watched” before viewers switched over to other channels.
Interestingly, two years later in August 2019, BARC “introduced algorithms” into its data validation method to ease the impact of landing pages on viewership data. This, BARC claimed, was part of its efforts to improve measurement science and mitigate the impact of extraneous factors on viewership.
Prior to its launch, Republic TV also erected mammoth hoardings to drum up its arrival. An old-timer told this writer that one of its first hoardings came up in Chennai, a market known for experimenting with new English channels. From massive outdoor publicity to keeping the channel as a landing page, it all seemed like legitimate ways to rake in the all-important TRP numbers.
When the new channel, which claimed to be “too loud to be silenced”, pulled down the then seemingly indomitable Times Now to the second spot in the first week itself, there was shock and awe. “We genuinely thought Arnab Goswami, an ex-Times Now guy, had weaved his magic around the English news genre and managed the impossible,” said a Mumbai-based media watcher.
Two years and four months later, when Partho Dasgupta, the first chief executive officer of BARC India, stepped down in October 2019 to be replaced by media veteran Sunil Lulla, many thought it was part of a management rejig. Lulla had been a board member before his appointment and was familiar with BARC’s operations. He quickly established himself.
But soon after, chief operating officer Romil Ramgarhia called it quits. Sources said an internal report on the working of BARC had pulled several skeletons out of the closet. A forensic inquiry into the data-rigging scam, and an effort to right-size the organisation, seemed to have run parallelly, pushing at least 40 senior and mid-management staff out, bringing down the staff strength to a little over 200.
The five-year-old organisation was still bleeding when it decided to cut the staff by at least 10-12 percent. While some were asked to go, some others moved to greener pastures. Among those who left were Rushabh Mehta, head of West; Venkat Samrat, head of South; and Manashi Kumar, chief people officer and head of strategy.
In October 2020, BARC India and one of its vendors, Hansa, approached the Mumbai police with a complaint against “suspicious trends and activities”. Certain households were apparently being paid to keep their TV sets on, irrespective of whether they were watching it or not, in order to distort the viewership data in some channels’ favour.
In the next two months, the police went on a spree of arrests: of BARC’s ex-CEO Dasgupta, ex-COO Ramgarhia, and 13 others, including Republic TV’s CEO Vikas Khanchandani.
Sources say BARC’s promoters – the Indian Broadcasting Foundation, the Advertising Agencies Association of India, and the Indian Society of Advertisers – apparently knew what was going on since 2019. The forensic inquiry had spilled the beans quite summarily. The big question is: why did BARC not approach the police immediately? Did it try to sweep the whole controversy under the carpet for nearly a year? What finally forced it to go to the police in October 2020?
A series of no comments
For the staff and other stakeholders, the data-rigging news was like a bolt from the blue.
BARC House in Mumbai’s Parel continues to be shell-shocked. Only one-third of the staff comes to the office daily while others claim to be “working from home” due to the pandemic. Every employee Newslaundry approached sounded terribly scared to talk about the scam that has virtually swallowed the organisation.
The top management is tight-lipped. The chairman of BARC, Punit Goenka, who is managing director and CEO of Zee Entertainment Enterprises, refused to talk and passed on the queries to a PR agency. When contacted, BARC CEO Sunil Lulla sent a message, “Will have one of my colleagues call you to understand your questions.”
An hour later, the PR agency called to say that BARC won’t be commenting, and sent a one-line response: “As the matter is a subject of ongoing investigation by various law enforcement agencies, we are constrained to respond to your questionnaire.”
A board member of BARC told Newslaundry, “In a way, it is good that all the mess is sorted out once and for all. Am sure the whole controversy will die down soon, and BARC will restart its services.” He however refused to answer a query on the forensic inquiry against the tainted senior officials, adding that he can’t divulge any details on the board discussions.
A top management official at BARC said, on the condition of anonymity: “Our stakeholders asked us to do some recalibrations. We are doing that. Our audience knows what’s going on. They will be kept in the loop about the progress.” He refused to fix a date by which BARC is likely to restart the rating process for news channels.
Interestingly, the internal independent disciplinary council set up by BARC has not discussed anything related to the rigging scam.
“The council looks at complaints of malpractices from the subscriber community that includes media agencies and broadcasters,” said a member of the council. “The issue of data rigging never came to our table. As a rule, we don’t look at any employee-related issues.”
The statement BARC issued on October 15 was timid, and flatly refused to own up to its responsibility. It said: “A technical committee will review current standards of measurement with a view to improving the statistical robustness of the data and impede potential attempts at infiltrating panel homes.”
Simultaneously, BARC said it would cease publishing the weekly individual ratings for all news channels during the exercise: “This exercise is expected to take around 8-12 weeks including validation and testing under the supervision of BARC's Tech Comm. BARC will continue to release weekly audience estimates for the genre of news by state and language.”
BARC’s concern, clearly, was only the news genre, where Republic TV figures on top. A second news channel, News Nation, has also been named by the police as being part of the scam.
However, the Mumbai police also mentioned four other channels, apart from Republic, as being involved in the scam – Marathi channels Fakt Marathi and Box Cinema, and Maha Movie and Wow music channel. But BARC seems to have cast a blind eye towards them.
Arnab at the centre
The controversy was like manna from heaven for the Maharashtra government, which seemed to have been waiting for a chance to go after Goswami. Goswami, after all, had been busy trying to delegitimise the government since its rocky beginnings almost a year ago. Riding his newfound political clout, Goswami’s efforts to communalise a couple of sensitive cases in Maharashtra – the lynching of sadhus in Palghar and the suicide of Sushant Singh Rajput – had landed him in a delicate spot.
The Mumbai police has now called BARC ex-CEO Dasgupta the “mastermind” of the scandal. His remand application said he “used” BARC’s measurement science analytics division, which tracks viewership of TV channels, to manipulate TRPs.
"Outlier method, changes in the meta rule method and channel audience control were the three methods used by BARC India to manipulate data attained through bar-o-meters,” , the joint commissioner of police. According to him, the outlier method and the meta rules were altered to help their preferred channels take the top slots. If there wasn’t any human intervention, the AI-supported meta rule would have counted a channel, which is tuned in for several hours on a TV set, an “outlier” and ignored the data provided by the attached bar-o-meter.
An insider said BARC’s two-member oversight committee – comprising former chairman Nakul Chopra and industry veteran Praveen Tripathi – set up in June 2020, had cleared the outlier policy and its data validation, .
For current BARC CEO Lulla, the scam poses a huge challenge. Identifying the infiltrated panel homes and replacing them is a herculean task. An insider told Newslaundry that increasing the number of bar-o-meters to 40,000 took nearly three years and BARC’s efforts to expand the base to more than 50,000 took a serious beating during the pandemic. Another challenge will be to devise ways to avoid the repeating of such rigging in future.
The installation and maintenance of bar-o-meters was outsourced to a few companies, such as Hansa and Market Xcel. “Given the fact that BARC retires one-fourth of the existing panel homes every year, it was a big challenge in the pandemic. As a routine, 10,000 meters had to be replaced with new households. Now, BARC needs to replace all the compromised panel homes too,” the insider said, adding that it is a “murky situation”.
He added: “Since the number of bar-o-meters is shrinking, the sampling error could be huge.”
TRAI’s new rules
A few months after Lulla took charge, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India had raised concerns of transparency within BARC. In its recommendations, the telecom regulator suggested that the BARC India board should have at least 50 percent independent members, including a measurement technology expert, a statistician of national repute from the top institutions of the country, and two representatives from the government or regulator.
It also added that the restructured board should provide for equal representation of the three constituent industry associations (the Indian Broadcasting Foundation holding 60 percent stake, and the Advertising Agencies Association of India and the Indian Society of Advertisers holding 20 percent each) with equal voting rights, irrespective of their proportion of equity holding.
“BARC is yet to revamp the board as per TRAI’s recommendations. It continues to be in 4:2:2 ratio, with broadcasters calling the shots with four members,” said the insider.
At present, there are eight members on the board. Apart from the chairman Punit Goenka, the three others representing broadcasters are K Madhavan, managing director, Star & Disney India; Shashi S Vempati, CEO, Prasar Bharati; and Kalli Purie, vice-chairperson, India Today Group. The other board members include Sunil Kataria, business head, Godrej Consumer Products Ltd; Bharat Vithalbhai Patel, ex-CEO, Procter & Gamble; Ashish Bhasin, chairman and CEO, South Asia, Dentsu Aegis Network; and NP Singh, CEO, Multiscreen Media.
Once implemented, TRAI's recommendations would mean that broadcasters would lose their board seats and controlling voice in the governing body, despite holding 60 percent equity of BARC.
“A committee headed by Prasar Bharati CEO Shashi Vempati is looking into the recommendations and the company’s inputs,” said the board member quoted earlier.
Some industry officials told this writer that they believe the whole controversy may be an effort to divert the attention from the “TRAI interference”.
TRPs for news
But the fact is that BARC is finding it tough to explain its role in the whole rigging case. Several thousands of crores of advertisers’ money are riding on the BARC’s shoulders.
Are GRPs, or gross rating points, and TRPs so important in the news TV genre? GRP is nothing but a mathematical equation used by media planners and buyers to determine how many people within an intended audience might have seen their ads. TRP, or target rating point, is a fine-tuning of GRPs. While GRPs refer to the total audience exposure to advertising messages, TRPs relate to the target audience exposure.
Media buyers are closely tracking and re-evaluating their media spend as the scam spreads. Most brands had continued with their spend, thinking that the controversy was politically motivated, until more arrests and evidence came to bother them.
However, a senior media buying executive at a US-based media marketing giant tried to downplay the impact. “In India, GECs [general entertainment channels] are governed by GRPs, news channels aren’t. Most advertisers are spending 5-10 percent of their total ad spend in news channels,” he said. “This deployment will continue. The BARC controversy has not brought in any lateral shift.”
Cost-wise, there is absolutely no comparison between the two genres of news and GECs. “Say, 20 spots in GEC may be equal to 2,000 spots in news channels,” he said.
In the Covid era, news as a genre has benefited the most, according to the media buying executives. “Most advertisers want to be present in news channels,” said an executive, on the condition of anonymity.
What is bothering BARC now is the police’s version that the data manipulation didn’t end with news channels. The police had said there is “evidence of a similar forgery in GEC data too”.
According to the Mumbai police, a channel whose CEO quit recently was also party to the rigging.
As the probe widens, Republic TV seems to have toned down its pitch by a few notches. The channel, which has thrived on nationalism so far, claims that Republic “is not one man, it’s the united might of the people”. Post the controversy, will it continue to blaze a trail and show the united might of the people?
The Mumbai police will tell us soon.
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