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People-meters have a history of manipulation. Huge penetration of Direct-to-Home television offers a solution

The manipulation does not involve just financial fraud, but a bigger crime of fraud on the people’s right to know the truth, which the media is morally and legally bound to provide, instead of fake news and manufactured hate narratives.

Written by S Y Quraishi | Updated: October 10, 2020 9:20:03 am
republic tv trp, republic tv trp scam, india today trp, mumbai police tv channels fake trps, republic tv india today trp fight, indian news channels trpThough the BARC came into existence in July 2010, it did not make any progress for three years.

The TRP (Television Rating Point) scandal unearthed by the Mumbai police on Thursday, which has shocked the nation, actually goes back nearly 20 years. As DG Doordarshan (DD) in 2002-3, I had encountered the racket which was rampant and was working against the national broadcaster. Even though Doordarshan had 35 out of the top 50 programmes in all TV homes (Terrestrial and Cable & Satellite-C&S), Television Audience Measurement (TAM) did not show even a single programme in the first 50 slots in the C&S homes category. When DD National’s prime time news share was 92 per cent, a private channel which described itself “sab se tez” with just 4 per cent share was declared as number one channel by TAM.

When our suspicions grew, I started investigating how the TRP system works. Very few may remember that initially, there were two rating agencies — TAM and INTAM. Both were coming out with data almost diametrically opposed to each other, causing great confusion. Soon enough, TAM bought over the INTAM in 2001. This was nothing short of cartelisation. But TAM coined a clever term — “single currency” to idealise its monopoly, which even the so-called experts at Doordarshan happily lapped up. This killed the possibility of real audience figures coming out.

Curious to know how TAM works, I decided to get a “people-meter” installed on my office television. I observed that connecting the meter involved removing the back cover of the TV and soldering two wires from the meter on to the tuner of the television. Why would anyone allow such tinkering with his TV set, losing its warranty, I wondered.

The data card was collected twice a week by a worker from AC Nielsen. I asked him whether any payment is made to the households where the meters are installed. At first, he denied it. Later, when I had befriended him over tea and samosas, he came out with the truth and revealed that the households are given incentives, in kind, like a pressure cooker or a dining set. The cat was out of the bag!

To dive deep into the issue, it is important to understand how the people-meter works. This is a set-top box with a remote control where the buttons are assigned to each member of the family. Every member who is watching a particular programme has to press the assigned button and when they go out of the room, they have to press the button again. Who would have the patience to follow this drill throughout the day? Except the poor, who are paid — as little as 400 rupees per month to keep the bribing channel open, throughout the day — as was discovered in Mumbai.

Another question was that there were only about 2,000 meters measuring the audience, and this figure was being extrapolated for the country’s one-billion population. Even the number of cities where the meters were installed was as few as a dozen. The demand was repeatedly raised that the number of cities and metres installed should be increased.

There was once a news item revealing the addresses where the metres were installed. The embarrassed company apologised for this revelation and promised to ensure complete secrecy. But the game was out.

The then CEO of Prasar Bharati, K S Sarma, moved by my agitation, organised a meeting with the top 10 advertisers of the country in Mumbai along with a representative of AC Nielsen. Both parties presented their case. At that time, the TV ad spend was about Rs 8,000 crore. It is now Rs 27,000 crore. I asked them why were they not scrutinising audience figures to ensure that the money goes to the right channels. The reply was astonishing: When we advertise, we have to go by some figures and since TAM is the only figure available we have no option. I asked them whether bogus figures do not bother them at all. All I got was blank looks. They also had no idea as to how the data is actually collected — they had never seen a people-meter. I asked the advertisers whether they would volunteer to install a meter in their house in national interest. This too obviously drew a blank.

We also learnt that a top international TV network famous for its highly-viewed serials had common ownership with the (grand)parent organisation of the research agency. This conflict of interest also did not seem to bother anyone.

The controversy continued to simmer till it was raised in Parliament in 2008. TAM was repeatedly accused of inadequate “people-meters” and corruption. NDTV even sued TAM and Nielsen, a global TV rating agency, for billions of dollars, for allegedly manipulating viewership data in India. The then I & B Minister, Priya Ranjan Dasmunshi said the TRP mechanism in India is not only faulty, but is a “game between stock exchange and company. This mechanism should be looked into and more transparency introduced in the system.”

The Ministry of Information and broadcasting (MIB) in 2008 asked the Telecom Regulatory Authority (TRAI) to frame policy guidelines for rating agencies. TRAI recommended an approach of self-regulation through the setting up of an industry-led body, the Broadcast Audience Research Council (BARC).

A committee constituted by the MIB under chairmanship of Amit Mitra, the then secretary general, Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI), made extensive recommendations for transparent and credible self-regulatory mechanism for BARC to follow.

Though the BARC came into existence in July 2010, it did not make any progress for three years. The MIB notified Policy Guidelines for Television Rating Agencies in India in January 2014 and accredited BARC on July 28, 2015, to carry out the television ratings in India. TAM exited TV viewership measurement on February 29, 2016. Since then, BARC is the sole provider of TV rating services on a commercial basis. At present, BARC has 40,000 sample TV households in their measurement universe (2019) of 153.5 million TV households, divided almost equally between urban and rural areas.

BARC hired a research agency called Hansa to implement the project. Hansa Research is one of the largest consumer insight companies, operating in 77 countries. Reportedly, this is not the first time the company has approached the police against its employees. It had registered a complaint in April 2018 after a leak of BARC-related data by an employee in Gwalior, who was booked.

What is the way forward?

With a huge penetration of Direct to Home (DTH) television, the situation has drastically changed. The set-top box can now be tweaked to record which channel is being actually watched (if it is already not happening clandestinely). This will certainly raise the question of the viewers’ privacy for which a solution like encryption can surely be found.

As on December 31, 2019, there were 69.98 million active pay DTH subscribers. Besides, there are free DTH services offered by DD, which has 50 million subscribers – 25 per cent of all homes. Even if a fraction of these are adapted as audience monitors, it will be a huge number and provide foolproof data — better than the small sample of 40 thousand people-meters with a history of manipulation.

The manipulation does not involve just financial fraud, but a bigger crime of fraud on the people’s right to know the truth, which the media is morally and legally bound to provide, instead of fake news and manufactured hate narratives.

The writer is former DG Doordarshan and former member of National Broadcasting Standards Authority.

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