TAM ratings system is broken and the industry is unable to get its alternative going

When news broadcaster NDTV slapped a billion dollar lawsuit on ratings agency TAM India and its international backers last month, it opened a can of worms. Broadcasters, advertisers and analysts all expressed outrage over what was essentially an open secret in the industry — manipulation of the PeopleMeter system and the release of corrupted data — but even a month later, there is no consensus on the way forward.

BARC delays

Most players agree that the Broadcast Audience Research Council (BARC) — a joint industry initiative to set up an alternative ratings system — needs to get off the ground, after more than two years of languishing in limbo, hampered by divisions between stakeholders.

“The whole system needs to be replaced, merely adding some more meters is not enough. It is not something that can be done overnight,” said I. Venkat, director of Eenadu and Chairman of the Advertising Standards Council of India. The shareholding of BARC was finally announced in March after a protracted struggle, with broadcasters to hold 60 per cent equity and the balance being equally shared by corporate advertisers and the advertising agencies. However, BARC is still conducting its initial establishment survey and could take more than 18 months to actually start producing processed data.

Vested interests

There has also been an implicit understanding that most channels have vested interests in the current corrupt TAM system, having been beneficiaries at different times.

The ratings system works by installing a monitoring device, called a PeopleMeter, in selected homes to track the viewership patterns of the subscriber. The selected homes, which make up the sample size, are changed at periodic intervals. Currently, TAM — which holds a monopoly on TV audience research in the country — has installed 8,162 such meters across the country which adds up to a little more than 36,000 respondents assuming a typical family of 4.5 members.

Given an overall television-watching universe of more than 140 million households, the relatively tiny sample size lends itself to manipulation, especially when channels bribe officials and cable operators to reveal the supposedly secret list and seduce selected households. The broken method is now so much a part of the status quo that broadcasters will privately admit to a separate budget kept for the purpose of “fixing” ratings.

“The inherent system is flawed, and there are enough vested interests to keep it going,” said the head of a news network, who did not wish to be named.

“Besides, most broadcasters are simply not willing to make the extra investment for extra boxes of PeopleMeters that is needed to make the system more reliable and tamper-proof.”

Industry sources estimate that over Rs.600 crore would be needed to install the 22,000 extra PeopleMeters that NDTV indicated would be necessary in its lawsuit.

TAM reform

Now advertisers and advertising agencies — which spend the Rs.11,000 crore on advertising that keeps the broadcast industry afloat — have decided to step in.

Their critical media space buying decisions are dependent on the corrupted data that TAM has been putting out, and they cannot afford to have TAM data suspended until BARC is completely underway, so they are finally forcing the ratings agency to work with them to reform its system.

“As key users of audience research data, advertisers and advertising agencies need to know facts directly from the research agency.

And if there are challenges at any level in the research, the search agency needs to share its proposed action plan with us,” said Indian Society of Advertisers (ISA) Chairman Bharat Patel.

Along with the Advertising Agencies Association of India, the ISA has charted a six-point action plan to plug loopholes in the TAM system, including a the appointment of a security agency, expansion of PeopleMeters in the top six metros and faster rotation of sample homes.

Direct digital data

Meanwhile, another stakeholder has woken up to the situation. “We are the ones most hurt by the TAM system,” says Jawahar Sircar, chief executive of public broadcaster Prasar Bharati, which runs 38 channels. “TAM data completely under represents terrestrial and rural reach of Doordarshan, where the major strength of the public broadcaster lies.”

The Prasar Bharati Board has decided to seek legal opinion on the issue, but Mr. Sircar feels the way forward will not lie in the extrapolation of data from a small sample that TAM or even BARC use, but rather in direct data from an increasingly digitalised broadcast universe.

“We have considered hiring the services of an independent and credible business research agency to assess our actual reach,” said Mr. Sircar. “We must remember that with the rising numbers of DTH and digitally addressable cable, we have the potential to extract more accurate data.”

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NDTV says TV ratings manipulated August 1, 2012