Fake TRP racket: Advertisers cautious as viewership row explodes

News channels typically enjoy around 5 per cent of total TV viewership, say media planners and buyers. But the share of advertising is double the number, at close to 10 per cent
Companies that invest advertising money in television channels are in no hurry to abandon the viewership measurement system that appears to have been manipulated by a few channels.

A day after the Mumbai Police announced that it had busted a viewership racket and named three television channels, including broadcaster Republic TV, advertisers that Business Standard spoke to said that it would be inappropriate to arrive at a conclusion given that the investigation was still on.

“While manipulations are not right, I cannot comment on the investigation in this matter,” said R S Sodhi, managing director, Gujarat Cooperative Milk Marketing Federation, the maker of Amul and a big advertiser on TV.

“Our advertising decisions,” he added, “are based on viewership data. However, we do take perspectives from our sales teams to decide where our consumers are and what we need to broadcast to them. This combination of tactics helps us in our advertising decisions.”

News channels typically enjoy around 5 per cent of total TV viewership, say media planners and buyers. But the share of advertising is double the number, at close to 10 per cent. This explains the race among the channels to score high on the viewership charts, since advertising decisions are typically based on television ratings points (TRPs).

So, TRP manipulation is a matter of concern, said the manufacturer of a range of personal and home care products who didn’t wish to be named.

However, for want of a substitute, companies are willing to give time to the Broadcast Audience Research Council of India (BARC), which releases viewership data, to come clean on the matter.

“There is a risk attached to the viewership measurement system in its current form. Panel homes can be breached, though BARC does have a rigorous protocol in place to ensure manipulation is avoided at all levels,” said Sajal Gupta, vice-president-Digital Media Buying, Zenith, a media agency. “Even so, there were issues, as the Mumbai Police has indicated and which has come up in its investigation.”

Not everybody was willing to speak on the matter. Mayank Shah, senior category head, Parle Products, which is the maker of Parle-G and other popular biscuits, declined to comment.

But there are some who have categorically decided not to engage with certain television channels. For instance, Bajaj Auto Managing Director Rajiv Bajaj today said that his company had blacklisted three channels for hate-mongering. His firm, he added, would not be associated with those “spreading toxicity”.

Friday also saw the News Broadcasting Standards Authority direct certain channels, including Aaj Tak, Zee News, News 24 and India TV, to telecast an apology for insensitive reporting around the death of actor Sushant Singh Rajput.

Some advertisers privately admitted it was time some sanity prevailed in news broadcasting, the standards of which have dropped with channels fighting to be heard and viewed the most.

The Mumbai Police said that those involved in TRP manipulation would bribe people in panel homes and ask them to keep some channels switched on even when they weren't watching them or were not at home. Many of these users, the police said, had admitted that they were given money to do so. Four people have so far been arrested in the matter.

The Mumbai Police had acted on a first information report filed by Hansa Research, the agency to whom BARC had assigned the fieldwork for viewership measurement.

In a statement, Praveen Nijhara, CEO of Hansa Research, said the agency was cooperating with authorities. "Hansa Research and BARC conducted an investigation into the matter over the last few weeks, the conclusion of which resulted in Hansa Research filing an FIR against an ex-employee who was engaged in some wrongdoing. Hansa Research has always been vigilant and we will continue to cooperate with BARC and the authorities," he said.

BARC viewership measurement involves installing Bar-O-Meters in panel homes. There are 44,000 such panel homes in the country and 2,000 in Mumbai.

To measure viewership, audio watermarks are embedded in video content prior to broadcast. These watermarks are not audible to the human ear, but can be detected using special hardware and software. As viewing details are recorded by the Bar-O-Meters, so are the watermarks. This audio watermarking can capture simulcasts and viewership across dayparts, giving an important and closely followed peek into the viewership habits of people.

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