The tyranny of TRPs

Who should regulate channels and how should they be regulated?

Updated - October 13, 2020 01:50 pm IST

Published - October 13, 2020 12:15 am IST

Blue Little Guy Characters Vector art illustration.Copy Space.
Blue man from TV screen shouting with megaphone.

Blue Little Guy Characters Vector art illustration.Copy Space. Blue man from TV screen shouting with megaphone.

Nothing can better describe the current TRP (target rating points) controversy better than the Hindi proverb ‘ Hamaam mein sab nange hain (Everyone is naked in a public bath)’. Before understanding the controversy, nay scam, let’s understand the ecosystem at play.

In India, no one wants to be regulated. The judges believe that they can self-regulate better than the National Judicial Appointments Commission ever can. The media, especially television media, swears by self-regulation. Energy regulators are mostly parking places for retired civil servants, few of whom have the guts to implement genuine ‘open access’ or tariff fixation.

Also read: Republic TV, two others involved in TRP racket: Mumbai police

Today TV is perhaps the single biggest window of entry into any home for any business. About 760 million-800 million individuals view TV in India per week . While TV penetration in rural India is about 52%, in urban India it is about 87%. Of this DTH (Direct to Home) is used by about 70 million-80 million households, cable is used by 60 million, and terrestrial by about 10 million-20 million households. About 550 million individuals tune into the TV daily and spend roughly 3.45 hours per day watching TV. The industry boasts of more than 800 channels across various genres. Of the total revenue of about ₹66,000 crore, about 40% is attributable to advertising and 60% to distribution and subscription services. India’s total advertising market is $10 billion-$12 billion, of which digital advertising is about $2 billion, according to Dentsu in 2020.

The nature of the game

What channels are not admitting is that the TRP system has been rigged for many moons now, by the channels themselves. That is the nature of the game. Channels cannot play the game without rigging the system. In the TAM (Television Audience Measurement) and INTAM (Indian National Television Audience Measurement) days, motorcycle riders used to be sent to follow those from TAM to retrieve data/install meters and identify ‘confidential homes’. Those homes would be given a new plasma TV, in vogue those days. In those households, a particular channel would be turned on and put on mute on the new TV. And the people in the house would continue watching whatever they wanted to on their regular TV sets. Needless to say, TAM and INTAM gave different ratings reports to suit different clients. Soon, they discovered that it was best to have the cake and eat it too, so they merged. When BARC (Broadcast Audience Research Council) came about, it took over the flawed TAM meters which are now said to constitute about a third of its own metering.

I have unlearnt everything I learnt in statistics to make sense of the fact that about 22,000 bar-o-meters (or 44,000 households) are used to distribute digital advertising goodies worth about ₹25,000 crore. So, a back-of-the-envelope, and not scientific, bar-o-meter equals approximately ₹1 crore of ad revenue, though the geographical coverage is tiny. Don’t ever ask how 22,000 bar-o-meters can be statistically significant to explain a TV viewing universe of 200 million households (Z-Tests and P-values be damned, they matter only for PhD theses, not in the real world).

There are other goodies for media-buying agencies in the form of fees, commissions, kickbacks, both over and under the table. Even a cursory glance at the balance sheets of the top agencies would reveal these staggering amounts. It is no wonder that no advertising agency worth its salt wants to upset the applecart and look at a ‘better’ rating system.

In today’s world of hyperconnectivity, can we not become self-reliant enough to manufacture bar-o-meters connected to the Internet securely which give us not only channel-wise, but also programme-wise and hour-wise data? That way, measurement would be continuous and transparent instead of being discrete, periodic, and tamperable. Netflix and YouTube not only know what you watched and how long you watched it, but also what else you may like and what you may ignore. Why can’t India come up with connected bar-o-meters or set top boxes when almost everything is now down to digital zeros and ones and measurable?

The way forward

What is the way forward? If you take Ofcom or the Federal Communications Commission, the two main independent regulators in the U.K. and the U.S., respectively, they consist usually of government-appointed officials along with distinguished members from the corporate world. But in India, we all disagree on what constitutes ‘independent’. If a government of a particular ideology appoints a regulator, it will be almost certainly deemed partisan. So, it really comes down to this: who do we trust more, the private sector or the government? Do we want BARC ‘self-regulation’ or an independent authority established by a constitutionally elected government? This opens up a Pandora’s box on who should regulate, how they should regulate, and who should regulate the regulators. The hype will end soon, but it looks like nothing is going to change, for ‘Hamaam mein sab nange hain’ .

Srivatsa Krishna is an IAS officer. Views are personal. Twitter: @srivatsakrishna

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