The Broadcast Audience Research Council initiative has failed to get going for over two years

The alleged manipulation of television ratings has been an open secret among broadcasters long before NDTV opened a Pandora’s box with last week’s billion dollar lawsuit against TAM India. However, with most channels being beneficiaries of the flawed system at some time or the other, vested interests have ensured that the elephant in the room remained overlooked.

A source at TAM India pointed out that channels don’t have a problem when they are found to be number one but when they are downgraded, they allege wrongdoing by TAM.

Senior players in the broadcast industry agree with that damning assessment, although no one was willing to be quoted.

“TAM ratings have been cooked for years,” says a channel head, adding he was approached by a consultant offering a “60 per cent discount” in the fee needed to make his channel No.1.

Another senior executive in a broadcast group which owns news, features, business and sports channels in multiple languages says about Rs. 300 crore is budgeted annually to take care of the expenses needed to fix ratings in their favour.

“We have to survive. We can’t take the moral high ground. We all benefit from the system at different stages, so we all have a vested interest in keeping it going,” said the head of a news network. “My only question is, why is NDTV suddenly waking up to this reality? Only now, when their ratings have reached rock bottom, they have gone to court.”

This joint complicity is a major reason why the Broadcast Audience Research Council initiative, to provide an industry-led alternative to break TAM’s monopoly, has failed to get off the ground for over two years.

“The government has been pushing these guys [in the Indian Broadcasting Federation] to move forward on BARC for donkey’s years, but they are simply not interested,” said a senior official in the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. “When TAM is manipulated, someone benefits.”

Another problem is that reforming the TAM system by expanding the sample base costs money that broadcasters are not willing to shell out. “The footprint of the TV industry in India has grown much faster and TAM has not been able to keep up with that pace,” says Paritosh Joshi, a media analyst and researcher on the technical committee of the Indian Readership Survey who used to head the Star CJ network till April. He points out that while TV households grew exponentially from 60 million in 2005 to 130 million in 2012, TAM’s sample size increased only from about 5,000 to 8,150 over the same period. Only a fraction of this sample — less than 500 — is likely to watch English news channels at all, increasing the potential for distortion through deliberate manipulation.

In its lawsuit, NDTV said it had demanded that TAM increase samples to at least 30,000 by the end of the year, and accused parent firms Nielsen and Kantar — the world’s top two media research conglomerates — of being unwilling to make the added investment due to vested interests on their boards.

However, TAM sources point out that broadcasters are also unwilling to pay for better research. They insist that at the current levels of subscription — the fee paid to access the data by channels, advertisers and media planners — it will be financially difficult to expand the number of respondents.

The tussle among these three stakeholders has also stalled the BARC initiative with debates about corporate structure finally resulting in a 60:20:20 model, with broadcasters holding the lion’s share of equity.

After this announcement in March, however, no further action has been taken to launch the body.

“This [lawsuit] is a moment of reckoning for the industry,” said Mr. Joshi. “It should serve as a trigger point to catalyse BARC.”

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