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Comment: BARC India’s move to plug loopholes sign of robustness & credibility

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That the Broadcast Audience Research Council of India (BARC), the incumbent dominant audience measurement organisation in the country, has decided to reformat and revamp its existing Ethics Committee into a proposed disciplinary panel not only speaks volumes of the leadership within BARC India, but also sends a strong message to the media industry. The message is clear: we take acts of transgressions, alleged or proven, seriously and will not shy away from tweaking our regulations to uphold transparency and credibility of the data.

In an industry that has a history of shying away from taking hard and difficult decisions, by and large, preferring to sacrifice transparency at the altar of status quo, the Sudhanshu Vats-led BARC’s board decision -- as and when it’s formalised -- to crank up its internal monitoring systems along with additional checks and balances is a welcome decision. Actually some observers have gone to the extent of saying that such a disciplinary committee, with powers to crack the whip, was necessary if vested interests within the Indian media industry were to be neutralised.

What is BARC India proposing? Have a semi-judicial panel, headed by a retired judge and comprising BARC stakeholders’ representatives and outside experts, to take up complaints of malpractices and after hearing all sides, hand out a verdict -- and punishments too, if necessary. Basically, take actions to discourage future transgressions.

That such a move could have been gently nudged by the courts is a side story. It is a known fact that BARC India’s executive office, helmed by a seasoned media pro like Partho Dasgupta, has been sniffing out alleged attempts at malpractices to influence audience data for quite some time, but had taken visible action only in few cases. Most notable amongst such actions included suspension for four weeks the audience measurement data of three news channels last year.

The very fact that the three suspended TV channels, two of them being news channels, moved court to get temporary reprieve and then two of them going ahead to slap BARC India with compensation demands for defamation just goes to show that in this game where everything’s fair in love and war, it’s always better to have robust checks and balances; even if at times people and companies are taken at face value.

BARC India must have imagined that having an ethics committee with fairly broad guidelines will suffice. The main objective of this panel was to highlight it was there to “ensure fair and transparent ratings system, free of any influences and malpractices” with stakeholders (Indian Broadcasting Foundation, Indian Society of Advertisers, and Advertising Agencies Association of India), having a “zero tolerance policy towards any attempts to influence the ratings integrity.” The Ethics Committee, actually did have the power to “address concerns and investigate malpractices that may be adopted by any entity” regarding the ratings, but probably it lacked legal teeth, which got amplified when BARC India was hauled into court with its decisions to penalise errant subscribers challenged in Bombay High Court. 

Framers of BARC India’s articles of association -- unintentionally or intentionally -- also put in an enabling clause that apart from the listed acts of transgressions and subsequent actions that the organisation could take, “there might be new ways identified from time to time, which would constitute as an attempt to infiltrate and manipulate the data.” An enabling clause to further make data measurement credible, in case under onslaught. 

BARC India’s proposal to have a semi-judicial body headed by a retired High Court of Supreme Court judge to look into complaints of malpractices, adjudicate on such matters after listening to all the players involved and then hand out punishments, including financial, to the errant ones, once guilt is proven, will certainly go a long way in raising standards of transparency of data and credibility of BARC India, but it would not be a fool-proof mechanism. Especially when BARC is obliged, under government mandate, to annually raise by 10,000 its data measuring boxes or Bar-o-Meters. This year it’s slated to go up to 30k and ultimately to 50k.

Industry organisations such as News Broadcasters Association and Indian Broadcasting Foundation do have such semi-judicial committees that look into the plaints relating to content and then hand out verdict --- and punishments. The Advertising Standards Council of India also hauls up companies and ad agencies creating misleading ads. But there would always be the likes of Patanjali (in ASCI’s case) and the three TV channels suspended by BARC (whose data were subsequently resumed in deferment to court reprieves) who would try to circumvent existing norms. 

However, that BARC India is evolving with the times and being pro-active instead of being reactive is a welcome sign. That most sections of the industry -- handful of opponents, notwithstanding -- are backing such BARC moves is also encouraging. Because at the end of the day, a robust audience data will only add to the good health of the industry that bets billions of dollars on such data in a market that’s by default is the biggest in APAC in terms of size (China is bigger, but non-Chinese media companies’ forays are restricted). Not to mention BARC’s attempts to cut down on litigation and subsequent outflow of money on legal cases.

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