The trouble with television ratings

Vanita Kohli-Khandekar

Does Indian TV industry have what it takes to fix the ratings mess?

“If ratings go, there will be anarchy. Let us put plan B into place,” says Ashok Venkatramani, CEO, MCCS, the company that owns ABP News and other channels. It sums up what everyone — broadcasters, advertisers, analysts and investors — thinks needs to be done in the wake of the ratings controversy.
Ever since NDTV filed a lawsuit against Nielsen Holdings late last month, alleging the latter brought out corrupt data, there has been continuous babble. Now, as the noise peters out, the feeling within the Rs 33,000-crore Indian television business is, “How can we rapidly migrate from here?” says Sunil Lulla, managing director and CEO, Times Television Network. Advertisers echo that sentiment. Says Sanjay Tripathy, executive vice-president, HDFC Life Insurance, “It is high time we built confidence in the process.”
How should one do so? Should it be by doing what NDTV wants: Suspending ratings data brought out by the Nielsen-Kantar joint venture TAM Media Research till it fixes the problems? That is what happened in Turkey last year. In India, nobody likes the idea because Rs 11,600 crore of TV ad revenues hang in the balance. “As a planning metric, TAM continues to hold,” maintains Satyajit Sen, CEO, Zenith Optimedia.
“The mature response would be if BARC (Broadcast Audience Research Council) got off the ground,” thinks Shashi Sinha, CEO, Lodestar Universal. BARC is a joint venture between the Indian Society of Advertisers (ISA), the Advertising Agencies Association of India (AAAI) and the Indian Broadcasting Foundation (IBF). Its job is to commission audience research. BARC, in deep freeze for almost six years, was recently brought to life.
Punit Goenka, managing director and CEO, Zee Entertainment Enterprises, doubles as the IBF nominee chairman of BARC. He says that BARC is up and running and looking for a CEO. “Eighteen months from now, data should be getting reported and it will be robust,” he promises.
If that is correct, then the first step towards having a good currency for buying and selling television airtime has already been taken. Shivnath Thukral, group president, corporate branding and strategic initiatives, Essar Group, reckons, “The sample size has to be fixed, you have to include online and other viewing data. Eventually, the industry has to come together and trust each other.”
Thukral has hit the nail on the head. The big thing is not figuring out what is wrong. It is learning how to work with each other, something the Indian television industry has repeatedly proved incapable of doing.

What hit us?

In the mid-90s, a joint industry body made up of advertisers, broadcasters and media buyers appointed TAM to provide ratings. Till 2005, life was coasting along. The trouble began when competition, and then hyper-competition, kicked in (see chart). From 350-odd channels, we hit almost 700 this year. TAM responded, increasing its sample to 8,150 peoplemetres. This covers 33,500 people but is hugely inadequate in a market containing 148 million TV homes and about 700 million viewers. Soon, niche genres in growth mode started having problems.
Take news, for instance. From 39 in 2005, there are 133 news channels in India. The competition and resulting revenue pressure forced business heads to start slicing and dicing the data to somehow prove they were ahead of competitors. However, cutting data too fine on a small sample size threw up all sorts of weird skews. Suddenly, really obscure shows would come out tops. “If you apply statistical significance, the error of sampling is 34 per cent for niche areas such as news. That is why it (the ratings system) is a disaster,” says Lulla.
The skews were then used as examples of corrupt data. Then, whispers on data-fixing too began making the rounds. It is against this background that the government got into the act. The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) first came up with a policy paper on ratings in 2008. In 2010, a committee under Amit Mitra suggested increasing the sample size to 30,000 peoplemetres, forming BARC and imposing a cess on the industry to fund the growth.

Why BARC is a good idea
Nothing happened for a long while. Then, earlier this year, BARC was registered as a not-for-profit body. It is modelled on the lines of the Broadcasters’ Audience Research Board (BARB), responsible for the official measurement of UK’s television audience and commissioning of audience research.
The actioning of BARC indicates three big positive changes.
One, it separates the research vendor (say TAM) from the guys who decide the methodology. “A vendor-owned, vendor-managed system is always suspect. The Indian Readership Survey (IRS) is less prone to attack because of MRUC (Media Research Users Council),” says Paritosh Joshi, an independent media professional. MRUC, an industry body, commissions readership research. TAM likes the idea. “We were set up by a joint industry committee. We will be happy to support and work with any industry body like BARC even in the future,” says a spokesperson.
Two, an industry-commissioned research divides the whole process thereby reducing error and corruption. BARC has divided the process into four parts. The establishment survey, being done by IBF’s Broadcast India, will determine sample size, panel homes and so on. It has already been completed in Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra, claims Goenka. Then comes designing the survey, metering the panel homes and the last phase, processing the data. No agency has been awarded the work for phase two yet, says Goenka.
Globally, there are only four agencies capable of working on TV metrics — RSMB, Ipsos Mori, Nielsen and Kantar. TAM is a joint venture between Nielsen and Kantar, two of the largest ratings agencies in the world, in India. Will it be invited to bid for the new contract? Yes, says Goenka.
Three, is the constant monitoring of methodology a body like that can do. This is critical in fixing issues other than sample size. This includes representation of say rural areas, of different clusters of audiences and viewing patterns. For instance, HDFC Life spends only half its (undisclosed) budget on TV, radio and print. The other half is spent on digital and experiential media."My spends on digital are increasing because I don’t believe that only one segment (cable & satellite) is representative of TV viewing. People watch a lot of YouTube, DTH and other forms of television and a new measurement system has to take that into account,” says he.

Will it work?
There are two big question marks on BARC.
One is on funding. “BARC was formed only when broadcasters raised money,” says Lulla. ISA chairman Bharat Patel refused to comment on BARC. So, the big question that TAM has raised over the years, on who will foot the bill, will come back to haunt the industry. The cost of an additional 22,000 metres is estimated to be Rs 660 crore. And if, as Lulla says, there should be “one peoplemetre for every 1,000 homes,” the cost could go up to Rs 3,000 crore. There are no clear answers to this. Joshi reckons that if the broadcast industry agrees to spend at least half a per cent of their revenues on research, instead of the current 0.01 per cent, funding should not be a problem even if advertisers don’t pitch-in. Remember that advertisers, in any case, do not buy ratings data. Broadcasters and media agencies do.
The second, bigger issue is one of unity. “We (ISA, AAAI and broadcasters) have not learnt to work together and co-create, to find areas of commonality and move ahead,” says one broadcaster. On most issues, from price regulation to service tax, broadcasters have had trouble coming to any agreement and, therefore, lobbying as one. Adds Atul Phadnis, CEO of What's-on-India, “It is very convenient to bash TAM, but there is a larger issue of methodology and accountability. In this case, the latter cannot be dumped on one individual entity alone. There has to be a collective sense of responsibility at the industry level.” The crisis might have created a feeling of kinship, but how long it will last is anyone’s guess.
If the flesh is willing, but the spirit is not, BARC will be headed for disaster. If, however, it does get its act together, and brings out a rating system that the industry believes in, it would have taken the first step towards building a healthier television