An uneasy balance of power between television networks, advertisers, and the rating agency has resulted in constant clashes, shaking the industry’s confidence  

Last week, Television Audience Measurement (TAM) Media Research – the only agency in the country which measures television viewership – reached an agreement with disgruntled and angry television networks.

These included Multi-Screen Media (which owns the Sony network of channels), Zee, Times Television Network, Star India, TV 18, Viacom, and NDTV – some of the biggest names in the general entertainment and news industry, who command the dominant market share collectively. In the second week of June, many of these networks had either withdrawn from the TAM system of ratings, or threatened to unsubscribe.

Under the new arrangement, TAM agreed to release viewership data every month – instead of every week as in the past. This, the big broadcasters said, was more ‘stable’. From providing ratings in percentage points, TAM also agreed to provide absolute numbers to these networks. Networks had argued this provides a more realistic assessment of their reach in the backdrop of increasing TV viewership.

The new formula, however, has alienated the third pillar of the industry. Advertisers feel monthly data is the wrong way to go when globally industry is moving to real-time, daily data. Ironically, the advertisers had pushed a compromise in the first place.

Negotiating hard

When they had walked out, broadcasters had taken a hard position.

Acknowledging TAM as the currency of the industry, Man Jit Singh, MSM CEO had then told The Hindu, “But sometimes, no currency is better than a wrong, corrupt, discredited and flawed currency.” Another broadcaster had alluded to how ad agencies controlled TAM, including through indirect ownership, resulting in conflict of interest issues. He had said, “WPP, which controls 50 per cent of TAM, owns 60 per cent of the ad agencies.” They said they would now wait till the industry’s own mechanism – the Broadcasting Audience Research Council (BARC) – became operational in 2014.

The trigger for their decision was the fact that despite overall increase in TV viewership across the country, the ratings of some of the big networks had declined.

Critics, especially from the public broadcaster Prasar Bharati, however, read it differently. A top PB source said that TAM’s efforts to expand to towns with a population of one lakh and less had revealed ‘real viewership patterns’ and this had worried the private networks.

Shailesh Shah, a representative of the Indian Broadcasting Foundation (IBF), while criticising TAM’s ‘ineffectiveness’ had indicated doors for negotiation were open. On June 8, he said, “We need a currency…the only way out is for TAM to get its act together.”

Advertisers push

But the real push for a compromise had come from the advertisers, who made it clear that they needed a ‘currency’, which gave advertisers the confidence to buy thousands of crores of advertising time.

On June 10, the Advertising Agencies Association of India (AAAI) issued a statement, calling the move of the broadcasters ‘ill-advised’. It added this would lead to “overpaying and underpaying of advertising time leading to the collapse of TV as advertising medium”. Indian Society of Advertisers said that till another credible measurement system was in place, they would continue supporting TAM.

Big networks realised that BARC was still some time away, and advertisers would seek hard data on how many people were watching what show, at what time before committing ad-money. For TAM, the withdrawal was a blow to their credibility and brought bad press and scrutiny. Both sides had an incentive to negotiate. At the end of June, Mint reported that the TV companies had put forward a list of five demands.

The eventual compromise involved TAM providing monthly data to these specific networks, and absolute numbers. Its decision was based on ‘individual client request letters’ from specific TV channels, and for the rest data would be reported as earlier. The big networks returned.

And then pull

But the nature of the compromise has left the advertisers angry.

Objecting to ‘unilateral’ changes, CVL Srinivas, CEO of GroupM South Asia, told the industry website exchange4media.com that ‘hybrid’ system had created a lot of confusion. “The whole world is moving to real-time marketing and measurement and we are going in exactly the opposite direction…I see a huge negative impact to TV advertising investment.” A manager of a consumer product said they bench-marked campaigns on a weekly basis, and this would disrupt continuity. On Saturday, reports began trickling in that some top media agencies had begun withdrawing ad and sponsorship campaigns from a few big networks that had made the switch.

It is clear that the controversy over TAM measurement system – which has already drawn criticism from a parliamentary standing committee and Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) – is entering a new stage.

At the root of the tense inter-play of forces are the different motives, and interests, of different stakeholders. TV channels do not want to be hostage to unreliable, constantly fluctuating data that they believe has been tampered with and manipulated and wish to see its importance reduced. Ad agencies treat the data as the industry’s lifeline, for it provides them the only way of reaching consumers on a mass-scale. TAM is averse to criticisms and making modifications, but will ‘adjust’ if pressed hard – as this case proves – as long as it does not have to foot extra bills, which is what an overhaul would require.

Till these pillars of the industry arrive at an equitable balance of power, which meets their interests, the battles will continue, all in the name of the viewer.