CNBC's revelations on possible "rating fudge" are significant since priorities of television in India are set by Television Rating Points (TRPs). "Stunned", "shocked" and "damaging" are some of the reactions of TV channels. Certain hype on TRPs has been all across and as if they are sacrosanct. That is why the expose acquires the proportion of a "scam". But it is a wonder that despite a "TRP Trap" television in India has been under for some years, the intricacies were not brought out for public attention much earlier. Considering the consequences, the revelation should be viewed as a wake-up call in the industry
This is not the first time that allegations of "manipulation of TRPs" have been made. This time, however, vulnerability of the system being followed has been substantiated such a way that larger public attention is ensured. TRPs were being taken for granted as a "universal yardstick" by media buyers, broadcasters, media, media users and by development planners at highest level in the country. Advertising agencies and advertisers have been doing their campaign planning and apportioning television spend amounting to some Rs 40,000 million primarily based on such weekly "ratings". And, newspapers were busy hyping the "rating claims" by channels and content producers
And yet there is hardly any analysis in the media what these TRPs are all about as to at whose instance they are being compiled, with what kind of methodology and with what reliability, and as to their very relevance in the context of changing media scene and unique viewing situation in the homes.
That these ratings are only projections and for only a select few cities and based on a small sample of "representative" TV households was not convincingly explained. The pattern of selecting television channels, viewing programmes, timings, etc are measured with the help of a "people meter" installed in those selected few TV households. The general impression often given is that these ratings are national and represent total "TV owning households" in the country is not fully correct. At best one could dare to say that they are indicative of viewership in metro and major cities. Neither of the two rating services cover rural India. In fact, they cover only half of urban India. Starting with four metros about five years ago, the ratings today cover 29 cities with some states/ languages being covered by only one city
The peoplemeter being used was developed for relatively homogenized societies and cultures such as Canada, USA or South Africa and in fact, these meters were initially imported from these countries, mostly used ones. The buttons on such a meter in each sampled TV households are expected to be pushed by each viewer as per his or her viewership. That is each viewer in the household is expected to be an "active" one to push on and off of the button each time something on TV is being watched.
The sample size of TV households covered with peoplemeter started with 400 has now gone to 3454 in the case of TAM and 4405 in the case of INTAM. The sample size in the case of some cities is around 120 and in the case of Mumbai it has been maximum - today it is around 600. In these sampled panel households every member is expected to maintain strict confidentiality and factual in doing "on and off" of the button of the meter without any inducement, or any pressure and each member is expected to use only the assigned button on the meter for her or him and do so each time of viewing during a 24 hours period and every day as long as the house is a member of the panel. Each such sampled household is expected to represent several thousands of TV households or cable & satellite TV households.
Any aberration in doing off and on of the button, or any passivity in the process of any one member in the household will vitiate the projected ratings one way or other. If a few households in the "panel" of sample could be induced with incentive as is being done, the outcome is nothing but a manipulated one. The actual representative weightage of a household in a particular socio-economic category is another issue.
Spread of television to nook and corner of the country and of regional language channels, has changed the scope and extent of viewing. And yet rating service is not extended to rural and small towns, despite 60 percent of TV sets being there. Also, since nearly 60 per cent of television sets are old black and white ones, reliability of accuracy of sensing device of people meter is doubtful in capturing the viewership. Then, of course of the fact that spread of channels is not uniform across in different regions of the country. All this brings out inadequacy of rating methodology presently being followed. As a result channels having more viewership in rural or among certain sections are disadvantaged in the ratings. That is ratings based on urban viewership are deciding the programmes and programme schedules of TV channels, including of Doordarshan. Certain phenomena of TV being used as a decoration like a "wallpaper" in some households where "on and off" is not always related to actual viewing, or extent of viewing, is yet another issue.
The contents of peoples meter are projected by desegregating the figures into several socio-economic-demographic classifications converted into a matrix of some 64 cells is another contentious issues in terms of accuracy levels. That is how, competing channels, often end up using these ratings to their own advantage picking up from out of these several variables. This is further complicated from the fact that there are two rating services in the market sometimes widely differing from each other although both use similar methodology and cater to same interests.
Both these services, TAM and INTAM, each charging anywhere between Rs 500,000 to Rs 5 million as annual subscription (depending on the turnover of the subscriber), are driven by the interests of advertising. Since advertising is primarily based on perpetuating and pampering consumerism, rating service too caters to such interests. That is preferences and priorities of TV channels and their programmes, their time schedules and formats, commercial tariff, etc are all moderated by and based on these ratings. The two agencies are now engaged to merge rating service and perpetuate tyranny of ratings on Indian television. It is unfortunate that, not realizing all this, Doordarshan got into this trap and lost its direction and priorities when it supported TRPs despite this author's efforts otherwise a few years ago.
Such ratings do serve in giving a "logic" for media planners to justify their large dispensations total of which works out to some Rs 80,000 million yearly. Hence the need for certain transparency in methodology and some independent monitoring and validation procedures. Routine replacement of a 10 per cent of sample over a year is too little to ensure reliability of rating or to cope with passivity and casualties in sampled TV households week after week.
Since ratings are now "guaranteed" weeks before to lure advertising, obviously implies that these ratings are a matter of survival for advertising agencies, content producers and to channels themselves. The kind of competition between them is such that it will intensify and lure them further. Obviously, organizations like Indian Broadcasting Foundation (IBF) should take initiative to bring in some discipline. Self discipline any day is far better. The task of validation of ratings should not be left to users alone. In my opinion no one having interest, directly or indirectly, in advertising or media business, be entrusted with such a task. They should however be associated with the exercise.
The architecture of people meter and its practicality, once the scope is extended beyond cities, is yet another issue that needs to be looked into. So that we have state of art technology involving imaging and intelligent processing which allows direct measurement of actual eye contact and reduces tampering chances
Despite week after week these meter based ratings are being pronounced how much do we know about the "impact" of television on any section of the country?. For example, on children? On a rough estimate the money involved between the two agencies, bringing out TAM and INTAM, is not less than Rs 1,000 million yearly.
Recalling my own experience of bringing out the first ever National Readership Survey (NRS) report and the fourth one, I know what kind of resistance and pressures one face in revealing facts not palatable to subscribers who are under constant threat from each other. What an effort for scratching the surface or shall we say for hijacking the priorities of television and its very character?
The author is Chairman, Centre for Media Studies, New Delhi. He can be reached at email@example.com
(The views expressed in this column are his own and indiantelevision.com will not be held responsible for anything contain therewith.)