Regulators

Old controversy, new chaos: The TRP scam and all that jazz

Will BARC in its current form be able to withstand the intense scrutiny?

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NEW DELHI: The broadcasting industry had already been reeling under the impact of the Covid2019 pandemic when the Mumbai police came down on it, hard. On 8 October 2020, Mumbai police commissioner Param Bir Singh addressed a press conference about its investigation into an alleged scam involving the television audience measurement system.

The matter had come to light when ratings agency Hansa Services Pvt Ltd, a contractor of Broadcast Audience Research Council (BARC), filed a complaint with the authorities, alleging that some TV channels had been manipulating their television rating points (TRPs). This had led to faulty calculations for advertisers and a major loss of revenue for stakeholders.

Three channels were named in the complaint, namely Fakt Marathi, Box Cinema and Republic TV. According to police, the channels had allegedly bribed people who had bar-o-meters installed in their households. The owners of Fakt Marathi and Box Cinema were subsequently arrested and the directors, promoters of Republic TV were summoned for further questioning. Some of them were thrown in the cooler later.

Three months down the line, the case has sent the entire industry into a conundrum of sorts. BARC has suspended the TV ratings for news channels till January. As many as 15 people, including several influential persons in the industry, have faced arrests, the latest being BARC’s former chief executive officer Partho Dasgupta. The media veteran was instrumental in setting up the BARC television ratings in 2015.

Early stirrings of trouble

It is not the first time a TRP measuring agency has found itself in a tight spot. The earliest instance of the tussle between broadcasters and data measuring agencies dates back to 2001. It began when then CEO of Zee Telefilms, Sandeep Goyal, openly declared his lack of faith in top rating agencies – ORG Marg's INTAM and AC Nielsen's TAM Research. Goyal wrote a letter to ORG Marg CEO Titoo Ahluwalia Goyal calling for an immediate suspension of TAM/INTAM ratings.

“Zee has reasons to believe the data by the agency is ‘seriously influenced’,” he alleged. This was when Star India’s shows Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi and Kahaani Ghar Ghar Ki had been topping the TRP charts consistently for weeks.

CNBC carried out its own investigation and released a complete list of peoplemeters’ information which was supposed to be ‘strictly confidential’. The same year in October, a merger was announced between TAM and INTAM and they decided to provide combined TV rating services. But the controversy did not die.

Doordarshan director-general SY Quraishi wrote a column for a leading English daily, wherein he recalled how he got a whiff of alleged manipulation of TRPs in 2002-03. “DD National’s prime time news share was 92 per cent. But, a private channel which described itself ‘sab se tez’ and had just four per cent share was declared as number one channel by TAM,” he wrote.

Quraishi said he also got a peoplemeter installed in his office TV to see how it worked. And later found out “how people were being incentivised with pressure cookers and dining sets to get the meters installed and later bribed to keep certain channels running.”

Shockwaves hit the Parliament 

In 2008, the issue rocked the Parliament. The standing committee on information technology demanded legislation for an effective oversight or regulation on the TRP system to make it credible and accountable to the choice of viewers. It also cited the 1995 Supreme Court judgement, wherein the court pointed out “that airwaves are public property which needs to be controlled by a public authority.” The government was asked to “fructify a self-enabling, people-friendly and comprehensive legislation on broadcasting services without wasting further time.”

Stand-off with NDTV

In 2012, news channel NDTV sued TAM India’s parent companies Nielsen and Kantar Media for $810 million for fraud and $580 million for negligence in a New York court. It accused the companies of deliberately publishing corrupt and tainted data, favouring certain channels over others for kickbacks. The case was later dismissed on account of jurisdiction.

Back home, NDTV decided to unsubscribe from TAM’s services, but ended up subscribing again, citing lack of alternate sources which provided such data. Not surprisingly, the incident left a bitter taste. 

The rise of BARC

TAM was already facing flak for inaccurate ratings. It also came under the direct scrutiny of the I&B ministry which stated that its sample size of around 7,200 peoplemeters is too small to represent a country with over 122 million TV households. The NDTV legal suit hastened its downfall and eventually TAM had to sell its TV measurement business to BARC, which was accredited by the Indian government to measure TV audiences.

BARC was founded in 2010 by the Indian Broadcasting Foundation (IBF), the Indian Society of Advertisers (ISA), and the Advertising Agencies Association of India (AAAI). In April 2015, it released its first set of data which was derived under the new consumer classification system (NCCS). It brought together the three key stakeholders in television audience measurement – broadcasters, advertisers, and advertising and media agencies. The new ratings included a sample size of 10,000 bar-o-meters, which has now been scaled up to at least 40,000 households.

Five years since it started releasing data, there are still murmurs of discontent. The broadcasters are still not completely satisfied with the sample size, the division of audience set under the NCCS and the measurement points.

The genesis of the 2020 controversy

The current controversy erupted when the deputy general manager of Hansa Research Group Pvt Ltd, Nitin Deokar, made a police complaint stating that Vishal Bhandari, a relationship manager at the firm, had allegedly been manipulating the ratings. In his complaint, he mentioned how he found a bar-O-meter installed at the house of Bhandari’s parents. According to police, Bhandari has confessed that he paid people to watch certain channels on the directions of one Vinay Tripathi. He also identified five homeowners who were reached out by him, including his own parents, it said.

What do the TV channels say?

The incident has dealt a severe blow to the TV channels named in the case. Several top executives have been arrested and bailed out, including Republic TV’s editor-in-chief Arnab Goswami. However, the channel has maintained that the allegations are false and baseless, claiming that Republic TV is being targeted for its reporting against the Mumbai police and Maharashtra government in the suicide case of actor Sushant Singh Rajput.

It is also not the first time that Goswami has gotten into loggerheads with the Mumbai police. In a virtual discussion with Indiantelevision.com’s founder, CEO and editor-in-chief Anil Wanwari in September, Goswami had questioned the police on several matters, including the attack on him in Mumbai when he was returning home from work late at night with his wife. In another incident, Goswami had alleged in a petition that Mumbai police’s investigation in his role in the Palghar lynching case was mala fide. 

The controversy has also led to a war of words between rival channels. Republic TV alleged that India Today was initially named in the complaint as well as the BARC audit report, but the Mumbai police gave it a clean chit.

The News Broadcasters Federation (NBF), too, has looked askance at the involvement of Mumbai police in the case, which according to it was “never a criminal offence.” It asserted that the case should have been looked into by either TRAI or the ministry of information and broadcasting instead of the Mumbai law enforcers.

What’s ahead?

BARC has stopped releasing TRPs for the news channels since 15 October to review its current process. The government has formed a committee headed by Prasar Bharati CEO Shashi Shekhar Vempati to assess the existing rating system for TV channels.

The committee would conduct an appraisal of the current system, study the TRAI recommendations notified from time to time, take stock of the overall industry scenario and address the needs of the stakeholders. It will then make recommendations for a robust, transparent and accountable rating system through changes, if any, in the existing guidelines.

The Mumbai police, on the other hand, is on the warpath. BARC’s former CEO Partho Dasgupta will remain in judicial custody till mid-January, his bail plea is slated for hearing on 1 January.

In a recent press conference, following the arrest of Dasgupta, Mumbai police also charged that he was the ‘mastermind’ of the alleged multi-crore scam. He has allegedly conspired to boost the ratings of one news channel by reducing the viewership of rivals and taking lakhs of rupees from accused channels to rig the ratings of competitors.

In its charge sheet filed in November, Mumbai police named 140 people as witnesses, which includes some BARC officials, forensic experts, forensic auditors, advertisers and bar-o-meter users.

The investigations will continue. The faceoff between Arnab and the cops will not end until one waves a white flag and backs off from the other.

For the industry, the key question is whether BARC in its current form will be able to withstand the intense scrutiny and glare of the spotlight? 

Its current CEO Sunil Lulla is a professional with impeccable, unmatchable ethics and credibility, as well as great human management skills. 

One of the suggestions given by an industry veteran is that the way BARC  is funded will have to change. Most of the funding for its monitoring operations comes from broadcasters which are its subscribers; the other two ecosystem players, advertisers and advertising and media agencies, contribute a minuscule amount to its annual revenues. And amongst the broadcasters, the top five or six national TV networks probably contribute a majority to BARC’s kitty annually.

In such a scenario, can one truly and honestly, with a hand over one’s heart, affirm that subtly or otherwise no outside influence will come into play? Will advertisers and agencies also start subscribing in large enough numbers so that BARC has the money to expand its peoplemeter sample to iron out any tomfoolery that anyone might attempt in future, especially in the case of channels with smaller and niche audiences? 

Sure, Shashi Shekhar Vempati and his committee may come up with some improvements and recommendations. Will they be radically different? Maybe. Maybe not. Because the BARC tech committee had got everyone’s buy-in when it went about setting up its monitoring system around six or seven years ago. And that took some doing as the intention was to set up a fool-proof operation by all the partners. It had to represent what India watches; hence the sample had to be statistically sound with all the diverse viewing individuals adequately represented. Yet in time, it too flopped, having similar systemic failures as its predecessor. Some say it was on account of the way it gets its funds. 

Many may not like what indiantelevision.com is stating here. It is quite likely that after this clean-up, the industry may settle down with the new improved BARC system when it starts chugging out the ratings.  However, it could only be for a while. Will it be not too long before it unwarily strays into another controversy? Will history not repeat itself?

(With inputs from Srishti Choudhary)

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