Broadcast Audience Research Council (BARC), the joint industry body created for measurement of TV viewership in place of TAM with the larger objective of aiding the industry, has fallen short of expectations. The measurement agency is today reduced to a punching bag for stakeholders blaming each other by questioning the fidelity of the data released by the agency. Issues like TRP scams and rigging malpractices at sample homes have been in the news more often than BARC would like.
With no alternative currency available to plan TV ad spend of Rs.48,000 crore (GroupM TYNY 2023), advertisers are forced to depend on BARC India’s TV viewership ratings despite the slew of allegations and alleged mismanagement.
A senior executive of a broadcast network stated that rampant rigging of people meters is still prevalent across the country, and rampantly so in regional markets. He points to repeated instances of lesser-known news channels dominating the TV rating charts in Telugu-speaking markets.
‘Pay Rs.3 lakhs per month, get 25 pc hike in ratings’
A television producer making fiction shows for a leading Kannada GEC revealed that he was approached by agents with a promise of 25 pc spike in viewership for his shows against a payout of Rs.3 lakh per month. There is also a practice where the producers employ them in their shows enabling them with regular monetary benefits, for a hike in ratings. He claimed that senior executives of TV channels ask producers to strike a deal with the agents to spike up the numbers. For this system to work, manipulation of ratings is a necessary condition. It works, vouch stakeholders.
Many broadcasters in niche genre and regional markets are extremely unhappy with BARC and complain that it is not taking any steps to address their grievances. Recently, television industry veteran Markhand Adhikari also expressed his displeasure over the illogical viewership numbers of certain channels.
TV news on TV vs digital
On the news TV front, the viewership ratings war is wide open, with networks claiming leadership in an audience slice that is favorable to them. There is concern on the mismatch between the viewership number released by the BARC and the trends observed on digital platforms like YouTube.
According to Digital Track data released by Chrome DM, a Hindi news channel has been consistently leading over its competitors during the past four weeks. Whereas on TV, the leadership has been a roller coaster ride with the leadership changing hands every week during the past three ratings weeks.
Pankaj Krishna, Founder and CEO of ChromeDM, highlighted a research constraint factor with BARC ratings due to a sluggishness prevailing in sample homes. The respondents of sample homes while viewing the TV are meant to press a remote key and identify their demographic. However, in most sample homes, they fail to and press the “All” key. As a result, the Male to Female ratio in a category like Hindi news is 55:45, instead of 70:30 which is considered to be more realistic. Similarly, in terms of age group, a decent chunk of viewership of kids channels is in the age group of 24+ or 35+, which can be attributed to this research constraint.
Krishna also revealed that out of research conducted with 40,000 people in HSM, more than 90 pc recalled four old and established Hindi news brands among their top five. But this does not reflect on the ratings panel, possibly because of distribution or panels being influenced directly or indirectly.
Divided We Fall
Failure of a measurement agency in providing reliable data will result in slow and steady death of the industry. The TV industry is facing stiff competition from the new media ecosystem that is able to provide complex solutions for marketers planning their media spend. It is inevitable for the TV industry to act towards finding a permanent solution to viewership data issues. However, the fragmented broadcast community doesn’t seem to have any sense of unity in reality. This is evident from the recent setback faced by the TV news broadcasters in the DDFreedish auction. Despite NBDA and NBF jointly announcing a boycott, channels were bidding at the eleventh-hour and ended up paying a very high price. With this, TV news broadcasters lost a rare opportunity to reunite and make a strong representation.
What’s the Solution?
Despite the Information and Broadcasting Ministry holding the key in granting licenses for TV measurement, it restrained itself from any further interference. In this instance, the government cannot be blamed. The body which was governed and led by top industry executives all these years, has failed to deliver and is in fact deteriorating in stature by the day with the allegedly eroding fidelity of its data. The current situation necessitates immediate rethink on the way BARC is being operated.
So, what are the options available before the industry?
Can the agency be operated by a reputed private entity? Apart from viewership data from TV audience measurement agencies like InTAM, TAM, aMap in the past and presently from BARC, brands and marketers also rely on research inputs from consulting and research firms. They have been largely reliable in terms of the findings and marketers were able to strategise business plans based on the go-to-market reports from these companies. Perhaps the joint industry body can think of outsourcing the function of BARC to one of the big four on a contract basis, or a panel that is rooted in media research and analysis.
Can TRAI take charge of running BARC India? Another option is for TV measurement to be brought under the ambit of TRAI under the supervision of an IAS officer. With this option, involvement of vested interests can be eliminated. The quasi-government body must exercise its statutory powers enabling authorities to take punitive action against offenders involved in rigging sample homes.
Pending offer from the tech giant. There is a third option too in the form of an offer from a large tech company. Reliable market sources reveal that a tech giant has approached top industry stakeholders with an offer to buy 51 pc stake in BARC India for an undisclosed amount. It has proposed to take the control of running the measurement agency and infuse advanced features into the viewership rating system. Sources reveal that the deal is still under consideration albeit at snail’s pace.
One cannot predict which way TV measurement will turn. But it needs some drastic change to remain relevant. At stake is a huge amount of ad dollars and the future of an entire industry.
(The author is Co-founder and Managing Editor, Medianews4u.com. Views are personal.)