Ferrari, Rolex, and TRP rigging: Audit report exposes malpractices at BARC

The report, prepared last March but buried until the Mumbai police unearthed it, indicts Partho Dasgupta, Romil Ramgarhia and other former BARC executives.

ByPrateek Goyal
Ferrari, Rolex, and TRP rigging: Audit report exposes malpractices at BARC
Shambhavi Thakur
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Renting Ferraris in Monaco, purchasing Rolex watches using company funds, and “changing” TRPs to get “desired outcomes”. These are just some of the unscrupulous practices followed by top former executives of the Broadcast Research Audience Council, according to a forensic audit of its operations.

The audit was done by Acquisory Risk Consulting Pvt Ltd, or ARCPL, a Mumbai-based risk management consultancy after it was approached by the BARC board and management last March. The board had decided to audit and review its records after receiving multiple complaints about alleged malpractices, including inaccuracy in its ratings process for TV channels and the concentration of power in its former senior management. The board included BARC chairman Punit Goenka.

According to the audit report, the BARC board specifically received a whistleblower complaint in 2017 about the manipulation of ratings in the English genre. The board duly informed ARCPL in March and handed over a list of individuals who could have potentially been involved.

ARCPL submitted its forensic report to Baliga in July 2020. Yet, no action was taken. The report was buried and only saw the light of day in December, when the Mumbai police began investigating the TRP scam.

Newslaundry accessed a copy of ARCPL’s forensic report. It reveals a litany of alleged derelictions, mainly by a group of former executives – CEO Partho Dasgupta, COO Romil Ramgarhia, head of products for south Venkat Sujit Samrat, vice president for strategy Pekham Basu, west zone head Rushabh Mehta, and chief people officer and HR head Manashi Kumar.

Dasgupta resigned from BARC in October 2019 after six years with the company. He was arrested on December 24 last year in connection with the TRP scam and is currently in custody. His bail plea was dismissed by a Mumbai sessions court on January 20.

Dasgupta’s role in the scam came under further scrutiny last week when the Mumbai police released purported WhatsApp conversations between him and Republic TV chief Arnab Goswami. Republic has been named as being involved in the TRP scam.

Ramgarhia quit as COO last July and was arrested by the Mumbai police in December. He was later released on bail. Kumar, Mehta and Samrat have also left BARC.

ARCPL’s report says Dasgupta, Ramgarhia, Samrat, Mehta, and Kumar “manipulated” TRPs and violated BARC’s code of ethics between 2016 and 2019. The group allegedly “controlled” research and ratings, transferred employees who raised objections, and allegedly misused company funds to buy “expensive gifts”.

Quite damningly, the report notes that the BARC executives used “outliers, metarule and channel audience control” to alter TRPs and get “desired outcomes”. There’s evidence of this manipulation in 2017, 2018 and 2019 across channels in English and Telugu. The report notes “favouritism” shown to a handful of channels and suggests that TRPs were “pre-decided” in some cases.

Here’s a rundown of some of the violations detailed in the audit report.

Ratings were ‘drastically decreased’

According to the report, Dasgupta was specifically aware of “changes” in TRPs for at least two channels, Times Now and Republic TV.

In June 2017, for instance, Ramgarhia and Mehta exchanged emails about the ratings for week 24 in the English news genre.

“As required, Times Now numbers were changed, while Republic is kept the same,” Mehta wrote. “Republic is number 1 at all India level.”

The report says a “rerun” took place to “change the channels’ ratings”. Rerun means repeating the telecast of popular programmes to increase the channel’s viewership. Reruns of popular programmes can push up a channel’s TRPs.

Mehta wrote that there was a “significant decrease” in Times Now impressions and that Republic TV was “becoming No. 1 in India, India Rural, Mumbai, Hyderabad and Bangalore”.

Ramgarhia forwarded this email to Dasgupta.

On July 11, 2017, Mehta emailed Dasgupta the data for English news channels for week 27. “Times Now, CNN-News18 will be changed,” he wrote. On July 17, Mehta emailed the updates for week 28, writing, “Times Now will be changed.”

The audit report notes that “impressions of Times Now had been decreased drastically across the universe and 22+ M AB. The impressions of Republic TV remained unchanged.”

Here, “22+ M AB” refers to men above 22 years of age, a classification for measuring TRPs as per the News Consumer Classification System.

On August 14 and 16, Mehta emailed Dasgupta, Ramgarhia and Basu the ratings in the English news genre. “While comparing the details,” the audit report states, “we found that ratings of Times Now had been decreased drastically across the universe and 22+ M AB. This resulted in Republic TV rating going above that of Times Now.”

This is one of several similar emails that the report concludes show BARC executives pushed Republic TV’s ratings above Times Now’s. Newslaundry accessed copies of all these emails, which are annexed to the report.

The report records conversations between Ramgarhia, Dasgupta, and other BARC officials hinting at the “prefixing” of TRPs. It points to a screenshot of an iMessage chat from April 22, 2016 where Dasgupta allegedly asked Ramgarhia: “Can’t we get ABP to no 3? We are encouraging India News by being no 3.”

Ramgarhia replied: “In urban ABP is no 3. Even last week it was. The outlier removal is having a major impact on ABP.”

What are outliers? According to Best Media Info, BARC has no mechanism to check whether a channel’s viewership is “organic” or via the landing page, meaning the channel that shows up when a viewer turns on their TV. Hence, BARC “relies on a mechanism called outliers, which is basically any abnormal reach rationalised and moderated by BARC, assuming it came from landing pages, or dual LCN or panel home tampering”.

In another conversation on April 12, 2016, Ramgarhia messaged Dasgupta saying that he was meeting Vivek Malhotra the next day; Malhotra was then the chief marketing officer of the India Today group. "Have preped him for no 2," Ramgarhia said.

The audit report contains several examples of BARC employees being pressured by the top brass to circumvent procedure. On May 31, 2016, one Seema Singh emailed the research team to add Sony Six to an Alpha Club report on weeks 17 to 20. The “Alpha Club” is BARC’s monthly communique on viewership data.

Sony Six was released as a virtual channel in week 18, midway through the period being analysed by the report.

Sony Six cannot be added as per Research protocols. I have made that very clear!” Mubin Khan, a member of the research team, replied. “This is the final report, and there will be no changes in it.”

Four hours later, however, Khan emailed, “Based on Partho’s instructions, we shall include Sony Six in the Alpha Club report...As discussed with Romil, Research Team does not stand by this report.”

In December 2017, Khan was shifted to BARC’s projects division. He was given a “0” rating for 2017-18.

The ARCPL report concludes: “Even though Partho Dasgupta is expected to be the custodian of governance and ethics as he was CEO, we can deduce that he overlooked this factor. We have reasonable evidence to conclude that Partho Dasgupta aided the breakdown of governance and ethics in BARC, which had resulted in brand erosion in the market.”

Interestingly, the report notes a remarkable increase in Dasgupta’s salary over the years. He joined BARC in 2013 on a total salary of Rs 1.55 crore per year. In 2019, it was Rs 3.65 crore. In six years, his severance package had also increased from 0.55 crore to 120 percent of his annual salary.

Ferrari, Rolex and Gucci

In November 2017, BARC’s senior management went to Barcelona, Nice and Monaco for an offsite trip. Dasgupta was among them.

The audit report details a number of communications about the planning of this trip.

In May that year, Manashi Kumar emailed an employee of Magnanimous Group, a luxury event planner in Mumbai, to make arrangements for the trip. “Partho and his wife would like to stay on the beach (ideally a good property on the beach),” Kumar wrote. “He would like to have a car with him during his stay at Barca (he would like to know the choices although he clearly prefers a convertible).”

The Magnanimous employee wrote back: “Our supplier for the Ferrari will be at the hotel...for the delivery of the Ferrari California.”

On arrangements for a minivan to make an excursion, the email added: “The Ferrari of the CEO will go to the excursion too.”

The audit report notes, “Other members of the trip were forced to bear the expense for this.”

In May 2018, Ramgarhia purchased a Rolex watch for an undisclosed sum using his credit card. BARC reimbursed him on Dasgupta’s approval, the report says, adding, “Rolex watch was presented to Partho on his birthday.”

Similar expenses flagged in the audit report include an “expensive gift” approved by Kumar for Bollywood director Karan Johar in November 2017. The price of the gift is not mentioned, though the attached emails show it was bought from Gucci.

Additionally, the ARCPL report shows BARC introduced a “long-term incentive plan” worth Rs 8.61 crore for 22 select employees in 2017-18, without the approval of the chairman. The beneficiaries included Ramgarhia, Samrat, Basu, and Kumar, and the plan was payable until 2022-23.

Family ties

Aside from Dasgupta, Ramgarhia is the top BARC executive whose name features prominently in ARCPL’s audit report.

“Romil was involved directly and was in know of rating changes being done to favour a particular channel,” the report notes. “There are strong indication that channel ratings were predecided. It is possible that the data was manipulated in various ways to achieve the desired ratings.”

The audit team also received “inputs” indicating that Ramgarhia “acted in a manner which is in conflict of interest”.

The conflict of interest stemmed from Ramgarhia allegedly sharing “broadcast monitored data” on Bengali films telecast on Zee Bangla and Zee Bangla Cinema.

The data was shared with Eskay Movies, a movie production and distribution company which is a subsidiary of the Kolkata-based Eskay Group.

“Internal deliberations” took place in BARC over this request, according to the report, since “this data could be used by Eskay...for taking legal action against Zee and therefore, the legal team was involved”. Ramgarhia “defied” the legal view and “emphasised on sending data” to Eskay.

At the time, Ramgarhia’s brother, Rakesh Ramgarhia, was director of Eskay Theatres Pvt Ltd, which is part of the Eskay Group.

In a similar incident, Manashi Kumar was involved in organising an “Eid celebration lunch” in 2016, ordering food worth Rs 54,405 from a restaurant called Biryani Affair. The same restaurant catered two other BARC events in 2016 and 2017. The report points out that Biryani Affair was owned by her sister, but Kumar has not disclosed this.

‘Change the ratings’

In case of Telugu and Kannada channels, the ARCPL report points fingers at Venkat Sujit Samrat as being involved in the “manipulation” of ratings.

In January 2017, for example, an employee sent Samrat the ratings for Telugu news channels in week 1. Samrat sent an email to Ramgarhia, Mehta and Rajnish Rathore, saying, “We should cut TV5, ABN Andhra Jyoti and TV10.”

“We’ll have to bring down Sakshi n Hmtv also a bit...to around 10-12 points gain,” he wrote in another email to Ramgarhia. Yet another email asked: “Can we keep gain of TV9 to 25 points instead of 39 points?"

In August 2018, the audit report says, Samrat requested to “change the ratings of TV5 Kannada, NTV, ABN TV5 Telugu, AP 24x7, I News.”

Pekham Basu was involved as well, emailing Ramgarhia, Rathore, Mehta and other officials in February 2017, “The telugu news genre ranking needs to be looked into. TV5, ABN Andhra Jyoti and T news to be brought down below NTV. TV9 has gone down, which is fine. Please keep it close to NTV."

Basu’s name also crops up in the manipulation of Times Now’s ratings. On August 20, 2017, he emailed Ramgarhia and Mehta, “English News has some ranking issues. I have put Times Now under control on all days barring Tuesday – this should bring it below Republic TV. Let’s see after rerun. Team will find reasons for Republic TV decline.”

‘Breaching ethics’

Another executive to prominently figure in the audit report is Manashi Kumar, then chief people officer and head of human resources at BARC, who is accused of being “involved in activities breaching ethics and code of conduct”.

“It was observed that she favoured specific vendors and shared commercial quotes of competing companies with them, bypassed the procurement process, misused company funds, transferred people who raised objection on the manipulation of ratings, and showed lack of diligence in the handling of performance linked bonus,” the report says.

It also alleged that Kumar was “instrumental” in transferring Vijay Subramanian, the head of analytics at BARC, when he “resisted unfair practices”.

In July 2016, Subramanian emailed Ramgarhia complaining that the research team had been “forced” to change data. In August, he was moved out of his position. The report does not clarify where he was sent.

Kumar, who joined BARC in 2016, saw her annual salary increase from Rs 44 lakh to Rs 91.88 lakh over four years. She received a salary increment of 55 percent in 2017, the report says, despite the average company increment standing at 10 percent.

Update: A previous version of this story stated that at the time, the board comprised CEO Sunil Lulla, chairman Punit Goenka, and management assurance head Prashant Baliga. This was incorrect; BARC has clarified that its board does not include members of BARC India's management. This has been corrected.

This is the fifth report in a series on the Whatsapp chats that purportedly show former BARC chief Partho Dasgupta's collusion with Republic TV head Arnab Goswami to manipulate TRPs, political lobbying and influence peddling, and more. Read the other reports in this series.

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