Mumbai: The landing page controversy continues to dog ratings body the Broadcast Audience Research Council India (Barc). The latest one to wave a red flag is TV9 Network CEO Barun Das. Das is quite emphatic that the TV monitor needs to change the manner in the way it measures viewership, especially that which is garnered by news channels through channel placement on the landing page of a distribution platform operator (DPO). He has gone so far as to call it illegitimate and a restrictive trade practice.
The landing page helps TV broadcasters enhance reach as it allows them to be the first channel on which the viewer lands when he/she switches on the set-top-box (STB). News broadcasters have been paying top dollar to place their respective channels on the landing page as it allegedly helps them garner higher ratings on their respective genres.
It has been argued that landing pages are a marketing tool for broadcasters to promote their TV channels. An analogy has been drawn that a channel placed on a landing page is akin to FMCG companies prominently displaying their products on shelves in a retail outlet. This practice by FMCG players gives consumers the ‘opportunity to see’ their products.
Das says this reasoning has no merit, in a letter addressed to Barc chairman Shashi Sinha. Prasar Bharati CEO Shashi Shekhar Vempati and Barc CEO Nakul Chopra have also been sent a copy.
“A landing page actually blocks other channels from reaching consumers as soon as a viewer switches on the TV. It is a restrictive trade practice as a whole,” he states in the missive. “All the more so because, unlike an FMCG where the shelf space (first step) only attracts the attention, and then the purchase (actual transaction) happens. In the context of TV, watching itself is the transaction. Thus, it cannot be compared to an FMCG.”
Das further claims that due to some mechanisms on the ground, the landing page has been adjusted in such a way that even if the consumer does not want to watch the landing channel, the remote doesn’t allow him/her to change to another one.
“Any viewership achieved this way is certainly not legitimate,” posits Das.
The larger issue of leveraging landing pages is that it makes the news broadcasting industry uncompetitive and unviable.
As per industry estimates, when a broadcaster signs a carriage deal with a cable operator, the same deal costs two to three times more with the addition of placement on the landing page. So, a carriage deal that costs Rs 10 lakh may amount to Rs 40 lakh with the landing page included. Such deals are locked with large sized head ends and multiservice operators.
“The news industry collectively went wrong when they started paying absurd carriage/placement fees for better LCNs (logical channel numbers). Now, we’re creating one more demon in the form of a landing page. If you continue to allow landing pages as part of legitimate viewership, the same carriage-fee phenomenon will set in soon,” Das appeals in the letter.
Das is referring to the industry practice, where a broadcaster pays exorbitant placement fees to DPOs for favourable placement of its channel in the LCN. This practice continued until the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) directed DPOs that all channels of a particular genre must be placed together and any change in the position of the channel cannot take place without prior approval from the regulatory body.
“Landing pages are so priced so exorbitantly that only GECs (general entertainment channels) which have a far higher revenue base can afford them,” states Das. “Also, since the viewership base of GEC is much higher (compared with news genre), the viewership gained through landing pages has a minor impact on the overall viewership. In the context of news channels, the impact of landing pages is very significant.”
In September 2017, the ministry of information and broadcasting asked Barc to pause the ratings of TV channels that were using landing pages. This was followed by Trai directing all broadcasters of TV channels to refrain from placing any registered satellite television channel whose TV rating was measured by Barc India on the landing LCN or landing channel or boot up screen.
This directive was overturned by the Telecom Disputes Settlement and Appellate Tribunal (TDSAT) in an order dated May 2019 after news broadcaster Times Network approached the appellate body. The order by TDSAT stated that the landing page was a legitimate tool for promotion, allowing the industry to continue using it.
However, Das argues that the cost of placement on landing channels cannot be matched by the revenue potential of the news genre. Similar to LCN placement, in the quest for short term gains, news channels may again scramble to be placed on the landing page by out paying one another.
“Some channels are paying astronomical amounts and are gaining viewership,” claims Das.
Barc has attempted to mitigate some of the impact of the landing page on viewership of channels, although it has not been able to completely exclude landing page data with its algorithm-based data validation method. The outlier data was previously removed using symptomatic statistics but Barc replaced it with a methodology that uses inferential statistics to deliver better results across genres.
In his letter, Das appeals to the Barc board to investigate and resolve the landing page issue and save the broadcast industry from this ‘coming crisis.’
“I strongly reiterate that landing pages can by all means be used as a promotional/marketing tool. But the viewership garnered through the landing page cannot be counted in BARC viewership reports,” Das tells Indiantelevision.com.