Industry needs to understand on-ground changes in distribution, not question flux in data, says Partho Dasgupta

Industry needs to understand on-ground changes in distribution, not question flux in data, says Partho Dasgupta

'Works at something sometimes somewhere’. That’s the description of the work profile on the Facebook page of Partho Dasgupta, chief executive of Broadcast Audience Research Council of India or BARC India. And, that probably also gives a hint to all about the personality of the man, who sits on a hot seat balancing the delicate (and, may be, at times challenging, some would say) interests of various stakeholders of the organization, including the government.

When Dasgupta is not busy absorbing the data collated and crunched by his team at BARC India, he is, probably, strategizing along with his core team about the initiatives to be rolled out in a complex and diversified market like India or reading about branding and getting an insight into Indian media through books like ‘Behind a Billion Screens: What Television Tells Us About Modern India’.

And, when he does get some family time, he would love nothing better than to travel along with his family and follow the F1 races around the world (speed helps me breathe, he says on his FB page) with a single malt whiskey – the older it is the better, his friends chuckle.

A media industry veteran,  Dasgupta’s stints at various organizations also do give a glimpse at his various areas of interests, which include organizations like the Times of India Group, Future Group, BARC India and also an entrepreneurial jab at a start-up that he mentored. Though he’s a hard taskmaster, as claimed by some of his past and present colleagues, he is also looked up to as a ‘yaroon ka yaar’ or a true friend who’s always around when you need him most.

On the occasion of BARC India’s second anniversary, engages Dasgupta on a wide range of subjects in an interview. Excerpts:

How would you describe the journey till now -- challenging or a process of evolution?

Any change is challenging and it’s true for us as well. From the time BARC India started reporting TV viewership, it has been a process of evolution for the industry, including us. The industry evolved when they understood fidelity of BARC India data, which was a true representative of actual viewership behavior. With support of industry, we have grown in both size and experience over the last two years. We have hired the right talent who have successfully reduced client queries and helped in a smooth transition for adopting the data.

Apart from addressing data needs of our clients, we also made an effort to reach out to the public at large, and sensitize them about BARC India data. We have made headline viewership data available to all through our mobile app and social media platforms. While we have achieved some of the things we had set out for, there is still a lot we aspire to do.

Going forward, how do you see BARC making progress? What are the timelines and signposts?

This year we will see our panel expanding from 20,000 to 30,000 reporting homes. Combined with the newly added homes, we will also be seeding some new homes as part of our regular churn policy. We will also stop reporting on all analogue homes across the country with the exception of Tamil Nadu state from 1 July 2017. With the current digitization mandate for TN, hopefully the state’s analogue reporting will also stop soon.  All this may lead to some interim flux, but in the long term will improve robustness of our viewership data. We are also trying to innovate panel expansion by tying up directly with key DTH and digital cable operators to enable return path data (RPD).       

This year is also crucial for us as we will launch something that hasn’t been attempted in the country as yet --- a third party digital viewership measurement. We have set the ball rolling by announcing the umbrella brand EKAM under which our digital products will be offered. We are hoping to roll out the first EKAM product this year.

Apart from ensuring a stable weekly data service, we have launched THiNK (a monthly insights newsletter), Alpha Club (a report on viewership trends of NCCS A1, A2, A3 of 6 mega cities), and kids genre special report for the benefit of our subscribers. Earlier this year, we successfully rolled out our new universe estimate. We have also set up an independent disciplinary committee to check attempts at panel infiltration. Very soon industry will also be able to access designated independent consultancy firms who would provide strategic consultancy services.

Unlike some other global audience measurement currencies, BARC India’s impressions method seems a tad complex. How is it explained to clients, data users and the regulator and the government?

The terminology and methodology for data outputs is in keeping with global standards. BARC India Media Workstation (BMW) software used by subscribers for viewership data is easy to operate and is being used across 27+ countries. We also engage with our clients to understand their needs and that helps us align our services accordingly. We have a strong training team, which trains and provides support to every subscriber, new and existing.

In fact, last year we launched a BMW certification programme for our subscribers  to enable them to test their knowledge of the software. The results have been very encouraging. We also meet the regulator and government from time to time to update them about the developments.

While it is endorsed by the industry, BARC India still faces some criticism from certain quarters and smaller TV players about security and its biases towards the biggies who are funding it. Your reactions.

While we are a joint industry company (JIC), we have never functioned like a monopoly and so we always welcome feedback from subscribers. As far as funding goes, we got the funding without any substantial equity investment from any shareholder. Our operations are built upon a unique debt funded model. So, it would be incorrect to say that “biggies” funded BARC India. We have a common pricing philosophy for all broadcasters, irrespective of whether it is a small or big broadcaster. For transparency, we have also placed it (the subscription methodology) on our website.

Talking of security, BARC India didn’t hold back any punches while taking action against those involved in panel infiltration and it included some of the big names as well. Yes, there are some issues which our subscribers face. But that is more to do with understanding the data. Our team is working day in and day out to help them. This is normal for any new system and for all measurement companies around the world.    

Did BARC India and its top management foresee some of the problems and controversies that have beset the organization in recent times? Like the court cases arising out of chastising some users of paid/subscribedBARC data for alleged attempts at data manipulation?

If acting against defaulters who try to infiltrate our panel homes leads to controversy, we would happily get into it. That’s because we are answerable to our subscribers and it is our responsibility to ensure that the data we release holds value. Panel infiltration is a legacy issue, but BARC India has decided to take it head on. With advertising expenditure on TV in an upward trend, it is very important for us to ensure infiltration activities are rooted out.

While the defaulters have been crying foul, we have received tremendous support from the industry. Our intent is to always produce a currency which is fair, transparent and representative.

Was the formation of the disciplinary council, which seems a revamp of the ethics committee, a result of such cases mentioned above?

The independent six-member disciplinary council, under the leadership of Justice Mukul Mudgal, will further strengthen transparency and credibility of our measurement system. As it is an independent body, cases of infiltration or any such issue can be heard by the committee. This will ensure that both the subscribers and BARCIndia get a fair hearing in matters like these.

We have our on-ground vigilance team, which keeps a track of any malpractice. The disciplinary council will independently examine vigilance team reports and where culpability is clearly established, it will be empowered to order punitive action appropriate to the level of an offence. This has again been done in keeping with our philosophy of transparency.

Rolling out digital measurement was announced by you in a Hong Kong conference almost two years back. What has held back the rollout so far?

Third party digital viewership measurement has never been attempted in India. In fact, some of the products we are launching are a global first. Also, we are a JIC, which takes a 360 degree feedback from all its stakeholders. We had to first understand the industry needs and then design services accordingly. That apart, consumption pattern in India is very different from what exists globally. This only makes the task more challenging. We wanted to come out with a product that is robust and meets everyone’s needs.

It is important to understand that nowhere in the world have these kind of services been launched in less than at least four to five years. They are still evolving. In fact, we are being extremely ambitious when we say 18-24 months roll out of all products, which will start in a phased manner from 2017 onwards.

Did the digital measurement rollout get entangled in lack of consensus amongst various stakeholders and plain industry politics?

Frankly, I do not feel that there has been any unjustifiable delay. We have a digital technical committee, just like for TV. We went to several countries to understand digital measurement in those markets. Also, we had to set up a new digital team from scratch. We have invested a lot of time in understanding the needs of the industry and setting up a team which could give us the best product. We always wanted to come up with a product, which is as strong as our TV measurement. As regards consensus, I guess we are the only JIC in a major country, which has digital publishers, platforms and broadcasters on the same table, taking consensus decisions.

What lessons have you and the organization learnt in these two years of operation in a complex, but diversified and a big market like India?

Learning has been a continuous process and we still learn every single day from the market. What we have understood is that nothing here is permanent. Someone might be happy with the data released this week and the same person might be upset the next week as he might feel the data isn’t in his favour. I, frankly, don’t blame them. Our subscribers have been used to seeing data with hardly any variation, for years. Now, when we capture data from more number of panel homes, use better and advanced technology to monitor and measure data, the data is bound to faithfully fluctuate, which arises out of normal human behavior. This does not mean our data is not accurate, but it shows that we are capturing what India is watching.

To give an example, in months when Indian kids are busy preparing for exams or are giving exams, kids’ genre (ratings) is bound to fall. This picks up again from March onwards when the vacation season kicks in. Our data captures such nuances and changes. Not just this, take, for instance, total TV viewership in the country. Instances of heat waves and power cuts across the country from March onwards leads to a drop in TV viewership --- when compared to the October-December period. This has been a trend for long and this education is an ongoing task for us.  

Personally you have held a view that TV is far from dead despite digital’s impressive march. What gives you so much of conviction?

Look at advertising expenditures. Yes, digital is growing, but TV remains the most important medium for advertisers to get eyeballs. Talking of statistics, while more people are moving to digital, TV with 64 per cent penetration contributes to almost 45 per cent of ad revenue. Not just this, print, even today, contributes to 30 per cent of ad revenue and this happens only in India. With penetration of TV increasing in the next few years, its contribution to ad revenue will only go up and so, while digital is a significant contributor, it is still a small base and thus would take a while for any such tectonic shift to happen in India.

India is an under-marketed country with the ad:GDP ratio of 0.38 per cent, while the global averages are 0.7 per cent. Countries like China and Brazil have 0.46 per cent and 1.02 per cent, respectively. Good measurement being one of the drivers, I feel advertising spends will increase in India substantially and all mediums will grow, led by TV and digital.

How much of growth in TV viewership do you foresee in the short to medium term of one to three years? What will fuel this growth --- rise of multi-TV homes in rural areas or simple one-TV homes coming under the measurement radar and, thus, increasing the total number of TV HHs in India?

As of 2016, India boasts of 183 million TV households, a 19 per cent growth from 2015. Sixteen years ago, one-third of Indian households had TV, but today close to two-thirds of households own TV. These figures will only go up in the coming years, led by rural. Of the 183 million TV households, rural contributes to 99 million homes, but its TV penetration remains at 52 per cent. This leaves huge headroom for growth.

Multi-TV homes in the country today stands at 3.4 per cent of total TV homes. Increase in TV homes will also be driven by this.

Our Broadcast India 2016 survey shows a drop of 19 per cent in NCCS D/E. This means that people are moving up the affluence chain. The relative share of NCCS `A’ homes has also come down due to the rise of nuclear families. This has led to growth in NCCS `B’ and `C’ homes, and, thus, increase in TV homes. Such phenomena of nuclear families will increase in the future, leading to further growth in NCCS `B’ and `C’ as well as TV homes. Hence, overall, we still feel there is big headroom for TV growth still.

BARC India was supposed to have been in talks with DTH operators for return path data (RPD) to boost data generation. What’s the status of that proposal?

Yes, we are in talks with a number of DTH and MSOs. We should be making some announcement on this front soon. These are complex solutions and some of them will be world firsts.

What are some other initiatives being planned by BARC in the short term to bring more robustness in its data generation?

Expansion of panel size will help build higher degree of accuracy in our data. The RPD initiative is also aimed at the same objective. Annual universe updates will allow us to map changes on the ground, and that will reflect in accuracy of the data as well.

Will the technology and the methodology used be future proof?

Yes. In fact, the reason we chose to use unique audio watermarking technology in the first place was to ensure that it is future-ready. BARC India system captures data about TV content consumed through any form of distribution --- terrestrial, DTH, analogue cable, digital cable and digital.

Would BARC look at STB-embedded software rather than a separate meter to counter attempts at hacking and manipulations? Sign-ins could be like in Netflix where profiles sign in and tracking/recommendations happen based on profile of user.

Our tie-ups with DTH operators and MSOs for RPD are an attempt to do this. This will not only increase the number of sample panel homes, but will also make infiltration efforts ineffective. We will innovate more with our meter technology to make it as much hack-proof as possible.

With the movement towards handset consumption of video growing, what tech is BARC looking at monitoring such trends? When would the rollout happen and who’d fund it?

EKAM Pulse, the first digital product will be rolled out by this year. EKAM Pulse will allow granular level ad campaign measurement. It will measure reach of ad campaigns at multiple levels of an ad campaign. Some of the metrics it will provide are unique reach, frequency, on-target percentage and demography by geography. The other digital products will be rolled out in a phased manner in the next 18-24 months. All these products will be funded byBARC India.

Do you see BARC working with clients just as the former TAM is with Tata Sky to offer them viewing solutions?


With AI coming in, how do you see that being put to viewership enhancement/tracking/recommendation and how do you see BARC reacting/using it, if at all?

We have already deployed AI at two levels. One at the panel level, which is then extrapolated to know TV viewing habits of TV universe and the other that helps us track any aberration in the viewing pattern of our panel. We use technology in a big way and are looking to move all our applications to the big data environment and accessible through cloud to make us future ready.

Is BARC contemplating measurement of radio listenership?

Not as of now. The radio industry should be able to support the cost of measurement to make it viable for any player.

What would be your message to the industry, players, the regulator and the government on the occasion of BARC India’s second anniversary?

The industry has been very supportive in the last two years and we hope that it would continue to offer its support. In fact, I would like to take this opportunity to thank all our stakeholders and subscribers.

One point that I would like to raise is that factors like analogue switch offs in Phase IV (of digitization), TRAI order(s) and seasonal swings will continue to impact TV viewership. However, we would like the industry to understand these on-ground changes before questioning the flux in data. While the MIB mandate is to increase the panel size by 10k each year, till our fourth year of operation, we are aiming at multi-fold increase. We would like the industry to come together and support us to achieve this target.

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