Ask any television journalist why they sometimes behave in the manner they do – aggressive, over-the-top, loud, over simplifying complex issues, whipping jingoism and hysteria with little restraint – and the reaction is unanimous, “This is what sells.” Ask any general entertainment channel official why they invest in shows which often reinforce the most conservative and patriarchal of attitudes, and the response is similar, “This is what people want.”

Without going into questions of whether it is right for broadcasters to cater to the basest popular impulses, how do they know what the ‘people want’?

Till the end of 2012, the answer came from television viewership patterns in 8100 households across India. Now, Television Audience Measurement (TAM) Media Research, the only agency measuring how TV is watched in the country, bases its data on 9100 households. For a country with 160 million television households, where TV revenues were estimated at 34,000 crore in 2011, the implications of this data are huge.

Produced in the form of weekly Television Ratings Points (TRPs), this guides the broadcast industry in various forms. Channel heads look it up and draw programming guidelines accordingly. Marketing departments of the networks mine through it to understand how to ‘sell shows’. Advertising agencies and companies determine how to spend their budgets, advertise on which channel, at what time, during which programme.

But it has been an open secret in the industry that this system of measuring data is full of gaping holes. The private broadcaster, New Delhi Television (NDTV), has filed a case against TAM India and its backers in a US court for indulging in corrupt practices. Now, Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) has issued a consultation paper, which exposes the limits of the current approach and asks stakeholders to come up with an alternative model. The TRAI paper points out the problems with the system.

Details of the methodology to measure ratings are not in the public domain. “Adequate sample size representing complete demographic profile...all delivery platforms, full geographical required for statistical accuracy.” Measuring 9000 households (0.005 per cent) for a TV population of 160 million – with rural India, Jammu and Kashmir, and the North Eastern States excluded – provides a distorted picture. The paper claims that the secrecy of the selected households is not maintained. There exist crossholdings between rating agency and broadcasters, advertisers and ad agencies, with stark conflict of interest issues. There is neither a credible complaint mechanism, nor disclosure related to sale and use of ratings.

This cannot go one for, as TRAI says, “it will hamper the growth of the TV industry, as financial decisions, production of content, and its scheduling are largely influenced by television ratings… Effects of error will get perpetuated in the eco-system”. Broadcasters produce shows audience is not interested in; advertisers spend money but miss their target groups; viewers do not get desired content.

In this backdrop, TRAI has sought views on what could be an effective model for ratings. Should there be self-regulation, with an industry body carrying out ratings? Should an industry body set up minimum standards and accredit rating agencies? Should the regulator, in this case TRAI itself, accredit agencies? Or should it be the government? In 2008, TRAI suggested ratings should happen through a new industry body, the Broadcasting Audience Research Council, but this has not been operationalised yet.

According to TRAI, minimum eligibility conditions for rating agencies, and a ‘robust methodology’ with transparent selection of households, representative and large panel size, and maintaining secrecy of panel homes are important. The paper also flags the impact of digitisation. Trends indicate that ‘people meters’, the viewership measurement device, can be integrated with the Set Top Boxes, which will provide authentic data rapidly.

There is also a need for clear guidelines on cross-holdings in rating agencies to avoid a situation where a few players have an interest, and the capacity, to manipulate data in a particular way. Transparency is the key theme of the consultation paper – rating agencies are expected to disclose ownership pattern, methodology, get audited, and report periodically to a regulatory mechanism. It indicates that a ‘market exists’ for multiple rating agencies, and the main issue is how to ‘encourage effective competition’.

TRAI has sought comments on the paper by May 25. What will be critical however is to see whether this time, the process leads to tangible changes, for past recommendations on the issue have gone unheeded. Minister for Information and Broadcasting, Manish Tewari, has often urged industry to activate BARC and refine rating systems. Industry has engaged in blame-game with few willing to pay up for modernising audience measurement. But as the farcical nature of the current system becomes increasingly apparent, TRAI’s paper may provide the impetus on an issue which shapes what millions of viewers watch and consume.

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