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BARC India gets thumbs up for 2016...but challenges remain

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In the early part of the 2000 decade, Indians - still trying to settle down under a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government at New Delhi with AB Vajpayee as the PM - always expected something unusual. And, journalists on the media beat were no exceptions. But it even took such scribes by surprise when many of them received an unmarked envelope. Inside was a list of all homes in which the then TV audience measurement company had installed peoplemeters to collect data on viewing patterns. The hint was clear: peoplemeter homes can be breached and, hence, viewership data could be manipulated.

A small caveat and reference to the context needs to be added here: around that time, Star TV India having sunk in millions of dollars over the past decade was riding a wave of stupendous rise in terms of revenue, reach and viewership --- all on the back of the success of the Amitabh Bachchan-hosted game-show Kaun Banega Crorepati. Other TV channels not only felt the heat, but had been seeing their bottomlines turn scarlet. And nothing they did on the programming front helped them change that colour. Panicking, they settled on attacking the credibility of the edifice that provided agencies and advertiserswith data to negotiate prices on advertising on the channels. A CEO of one of the top four GECs then called indiantelevision.com and told us that he could provide us the peoplemeter household details, if we were interested.

The peoplemeter list incident was reported by media in few places and soon everything was forgotten. It was life as usual in an industry that believed then more in status quo rather than push for fresh changes and transparency.

Cut to 2016. When in the third week of November the barely two-year-old Broadcast Audience Research Council (BARC), India’s current TV audience measurement company, in an unprecedented move conveyed to its subscribers that it was suspending for a four-week period the measurement process of three television channels there were ripples in the industry.

The shockwaves, medium size on the Richter scale, if one can use that terminology, however, didn’t go unnoticed or unreported. Shock was more because of the fact that such moves by an industry body are few and far between in India and rarer in the television and entertainment industry, which has been the target of various allegations, starting from slush funding of movies, under-reporting of incomes by film and TV stars, the rampant casting couch and manipulation of data, amongst others.

Why are we getting anecdotal --- and being anecdotal and its criticism is a buzzword these days --- for a year-ender piece on BARC? Simply because it’s one of the highlights of 2016 --- a push, albeit minor, for more transparency, credibility of an organisation and the work it does.

Though some critics would say BARC may have jumped the gun in show-causing the three news channels, it goes on to impress on the stakeholders of BARC, and the TV industry in general, that the status quo is likely to be shaken up and which could be good for the whole industry. That the three news channels pulled up by BARC got interim relief from the courts is another story.

That an organisation like BARC India, a joint venture amongst the Indian Broadcasting Foundation, The Indian Society of Advertisers (ISA) and The Advertising Agencies Association of India (AAAI), is holding its ground and trying to be real global in terms of best practices, technology used and data is laudable. However, we think its three stakeholders, probably, would do well to come out openly and more strongly in support of such BARC actions.

Apart from such actions aimed at transparency, the year 2016 could be termed a usual one for the barely two-year-old BARC when its rural data opened up various opportunities for all stakeholders, its on-ground education initiatives bringing in more organisations within its fold for data (it’s not commonplace for government organisations to subscribe to private sector-generated data) and its weekly data itself generating excitement within the industry.

But looking forward isn’t it time that BARC and its direct stakeholders start thinking of digital measurement?

It may be argued that consumption of digital media by Indians is just a blip on the viewership radar vs. traditional TV, which still remains to be fully exploited in terms of numbers and reach, but independent digital data is always more credible than those handed out by individual companies.

In Jan 2016, BARC India ushered in the terminology Impressions’000. A year down the line, Impressions’000 has become synonymous with TV viewership data. While the terminology was introduced keeping in view the long term perspective of digital measurement, it is now time to ask if 2017 should be the year when industry adopts Impressions’000 not only as the sole metric for public reporting of data, but also as the single, universal measure for judging channel/programme performance. There is sufficient justification for all sections of industry to reference Impressions’000 to understand trends or make comparisons.

Why we making such suggestions? Firstly, the TV viewership ecosystem is growing. In fact when BARC India unveiled All-India (urban +rural) measurement, the TV universe had doubled. Along with this, there has been a year-on-year growth in the number of TV channels --- not just at an absolute level, but also at the genre level like Hindi GECs, English GECs, and English Movies. A quick visit to Ministry of Information and Broadcasting website will reveal the increase in number of licensed TV channels and those standing in the queue. However, while such additions of new TV channels to the existing universe are welcome from the point of view of consumer choice, these, inevitably, lead to viewership fragmentation too.

With an increase in the denominator of TV universe and fragmentation of viewers, it can be argued that growth in viewership is not captured when the same is represented in percentage terms or Ratings%. In fact, referring to Ratings% may give the mistaken notion of a decline, where if one looks at an absolute number of viewers (as represented by Impressions’000), one sees a healthy growth in viewership. This is also validated by the fact that India has witnessed in 2016 launch of many new channels (as well as addition of HD feeds) even in genres where many claim a “decline” was witnessed when seen from the perspective of Ratings% .

Looking forward, the industry could move to using Impressions rather than Ratings% as the standard of TV viewership. But, as they say, while observers may have views, it’s the professionals - who are actually carrying out their businesses using BARC data - who know the best.

Considering BARC is an audience measurement organistaion, what ratings/impressions should it get for 2016? We feel its thumbs up….but many challenges remain.

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