Television

RATINGS AGENCIES NEED TO GET THEIR ACT TOGETHER

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It's been 10 days since business channel CNBC India, part of the Sony bouquet, "broke" a story that it had the complete lists of all the households in greater Mumbai that had people meters installed by the two market research agencies ORG MARG's Intam service and TAM Media Research. While all the noise has died down somewhat, there is still a heavy scent of suspicion in the air.

Keeping the claims, counterclaims, accusations and statements being thrown around aside, a look at the issues at stake is what I will be attempting here, taking on the role of the "Devil's Advocate" so to speak.

What do we have here?

The "exclusive" list was not one at all. Indiantelevision.com was just one of a number of media organisations that received the Mumbai lists of TAM and INTAM households (627 homes). Though we were not sent the Chennai list, which leaked last Thursday, we have it in our possession now.

All said (despite reports like those appearing in the latest issue of Outlook magazine claiming that that for as little as Rs 5,000 one can get hold of the full list of names of any of the two ratings agencies for any towns in India), it is not so easy to get hold of these lists. The fact that both the lists were in circulation indicates that whoever has managed this is not only resourceful but has access to enough resources to pull through an operation of this nature.

However, considering the stakes involved in this business (RS 40 billion to RS 50 billion is the money we're talking about) the incentive is certainly there for those interested enough.

And those interested enough could be any of the channels. If the leader has a benefit from getting as many of its shows in the Top 50 to 100 list, the competition has an equally strong interest in getting their programmes as high up the list as possible.

At this point there is no proof to suggest either the TAM figures or the INTAM data has been tampered with. And this is a sentiment that has been more or less constant in all the discussions on the subject. As Sam Balsara, chairman and MD of Madison, and a key figure on Advertising Standards Council of India said: "Somebody is jumping to conclusions here. It is one thing to say some data, which is supposed to be classified, is out in the public domain and it's another thing to say that the data has been manipulated."

SPECULATIVE SCENARIOS

But that doesn't detract from the fact that the industry is abuzz with whispers that there is and has been manipulation of the ratings.

If we accept that ratings are being manipulated, who is doing it? Since the leading channel is Star, suspicion would point there. But production houses have an equally strong interest in this because their programmes are sold on TRPs. Sticking with Star, did manipulation start only post -"Kaun Banega Crorepati"? Was everyone sleeping in the interim? Or did it start even when Star was nowhere on the ratings chart and the other two rivals were sitting pretty on Top?

Look at the other side. Who has an interest in leaking this information? Obviously, those not benefitting from the current dispensation. These again could be channels or production houses. One thing needs mention here. It was rather too pat the way the story fell into CNBC's hands and no other news channel's. Especially considering that almost all media organisations worth their salt had got hold of the lists - but in "delayed telecast" mode and not live.

Moving on from the whodunnit to the howdunnit, one thing appears fairly certain. If the ratings are manipulated, it can only be the numbers lower down in the list that are being fudged - those in the 15 and lower range. Simply because the differentials here can be in decimal points and getting a hook on just a few homes would be enough to swing the ratings this way or that.

Ratings agencies point out the TRP lists are meant to be trend indicators and not actuals because the sampling is representative in nature (how representative is the question being raised). Any responsible media buyer should be doing its own counter checks if there are any doubts is their contention. Agreed, but this is only realistically possible for the Top 10 and 15 on the ratings charts. Here dip stick surveys are enough to get a feel of what's happening. Go lower down in the ratings and the only worthwhile source of information have to be TRPs, nothing else. And this is the problem area really speaking, not the Top 10.

The questions that will rankle are how do you know whether the list of monitored households is not already in the possession of the broadcast and/or production companies?

How do you know whether a few households have not been paid to control their remotes?

How do you know the nature of the relationship between ad agencies and leading software companies?

A LOOK AT THE FACTS

1) There has been a breach of security and this case shows it is not too difficult an exercise if one is so inclined. It certainly is not as easy as is now being implied though.

2) There is no proof that the people in homes where people meters are installed have been influenced.

3) There is a wide degree of dissatisfaction with the selection of the samples. Ashish Bhasin, president, Initiative Media, quoting from the list he had, says of a total of 228 households in Mumbai that make up the TAM list, only 18 are in south Mumbai and of these 14 are located in chawls. Nabankar Gupta, group president, Raymonds Ltd, is livid when he says that the whole of south Mumbai is represented by one "normal" household on the TAM list (as in a proper housing society or building). The rest being in chawls. One problem here. Both men quoted different figures.

What is clear from the above is that the so-called full list is not complete. But there are enough houses in the list which are authentic to show the premise that TRPs can be manipulated is valid.

THE WAY FORWARD

1) There has to be a complete overhaul of people meter panels across the country.

2) While there is certainly a need for more secure and accurate data, people meters are the only realistic option. Therefore, the data that ratings agencies provide should be put to much more rigorous checking than has been the case.

3) The way the samples are organised need to be more representative - both in size terms and the bundling of panels in very close proximity. But it should be kept in mind that statistical analysis is a science and unless it is clearly shown by competent authorities that there are serious lacunae in the sampling methodology, it is irresponsible to shoot off charges.

4) As far as the security angle goes, no one has talked about utilising available technologies to close the tap on such leaks recurring. Software is available that fragments all information in such a way that anyone accessing information would be able to get only specific parts of data. The coding required to get the complete picture would naturally be available to a very select few in the company.

5) Wireless transfer of data rather than the present system where execs/field officers from the agencies go house to house to collect data should be explored.

6) There have been leaks in other countries as well. In Turkey the full AC Nielsen list leaked last year. In Spain also there was a leak of the ratings list. How these countries dealt with the problem needs study. This should not be a problem since worldwide Nielsen is the agency doing this work.

7) The merger process of the two agencies needs to be accelerated (to streamline costs and improve efficiency) while at the same time instituting clear controls on the functioning of the new entity with regards to data collation. And this can only be done by an independent entity like the Media Research User's Council (MRUC), which has credibility across the board.

There is a rider here. Money has to be forthcoming. High quality data collation is an expensive business. According to advertising and media veteran Roda Mehta, one reason for the present mess is the lack of investment being put into quality research by the industry and says: "A healthy industry needs good healthy research."

Mehta sees MRUC's role (provided adequate funds were made available by the industry) as an overseer, designing the research methodologies and monitoring the fieldwork.

It has been suggested that the MRUC and the Indian Broadcasting Foundation (IBF) have a meeting to thrash out key issues required to be addressed so as to get things in order again.

The IBF has scheduled a meeting for tomorrow (Friday, 14 September) to thrash out these very issues. Both the ratings agencies, TAM and INTAM have been invited to attend though it is not clear whether there will be representation from the Advertising Agencies Association of India (3AAAsofI).

It remains to be seen whether the players involved can keep their differences aside long enough to work towards a system which will benefit the industry as a whole.

THOMAS ABRAHAM,

MANAGING EDITOR, INDIANTELEVISION.COM

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