Why is Trai trying the TV business?

Hindustan Unilever, Amazon, Wipro and ITC are among India’s top advertisers. In 2019, they, along with many others, spent Rs 32,000 crore buying advertising seconds on 800 plus channels, including Zee TV, Colors and Sun TV. To decide on the channel, show, quantity, placement and so on they used the world’s largest television audience measurement system — Broadcast Audience Research Council (Barc) data. In the five years of Barc’s existence, no advertiser has complained about the data or sto­pped using it; nor has any media agency. That makes it difficult to understand why the Telecom Re­gu­latory Authority of India (Trai), also India’s broadcast regulator, felt the need to recommend a rehaul of Barc.

Last week, in the mid of an economic slowdown compounded by a lockdown, Trai came up with ‘Re­c­ommendations on Review of Television Audience Me­a­su­rement and Rating System in India.’ Unlike most Trai pa­pers, it is vague and lacking in specifics. It keeps referring to “certain stakeholders” to recommend a drastic re­structuring of Barc, change the composition of its board and mandate a sample increase from the current 45,500 to 100,000 homes by 2022 among other things. Many of its recommendations, like having an oversight committee are things that are already in place. Some are impractical and others suggest little understanding of broadcasting, au­di­ence measurement, statistics and economics.

“If this goes through, I am out,” says one large broadcaster. Others feel similarly. On the pay revenue side, Trai has already squeezed the Rs 74,000 crore television industry with the ill-thought out new tariff order. This paper could do that on the ad revenue side.

Barc was born after great trauma. It took three consultation papers, the death of TAM Media Research’s rating business and over seven years of agonising over ownership, shareholding, technology, methodology, money and so on. It is a 60:20:20 venture between Indian Broad­casting Foundation, Indian Society of Ad­vertisers and Ad­vertising Agencies As­s­ociation of India. These three bodies were the guarantors for the Rs 180 crore that Barc raised from banks to get started.

Currently it monitors the TV viewership of over 200,000 Indians in 45,500 homes to project onto 836 million Indians in 197 million homes. That is up from about 40,000 people in 2015. Everybody, including broadcasters, would like a bigger sample but going from 45,500 to 100,000 homes will take Rs 75 crore in capital and several times of that in operating expenses. Who will foot the bill? At about Rs 300 crore in revenues Barc just about keeps its head above water. 

Broadcasters, who bring in more than 85 per cent of Barc’s subscription-based revenues, have no appetite to pay more.

Largely because they are happy with the system. For general entertainment channels, the current sample size is robust. But niche and news broadcasters have a problem. The sample for say English or Telugu news is too small to zoom in on an anchor or show on say a Friday night. For years TAM and then Barc have advised them to analyse trends over longer periods of time, say a few weeks; to no avail. Many anchors and news broadcasters like to think that they are leading and get annoyed when Barc data shows otherwise. Several have tried tampering and other dodgy ways to creep up the charts. News broadcasting brings in just 10 per cent of Barc’s topline, but a bulk of its complaints. If increasing the sample is an issue why not give up on news ratings? Keep it to genres which can be properly measured.

Much of this discussion is pointless for two reasons.

One, even if the ratings system is bro­ken and stakeholders are complaining, the regulator has no business getting into it. Readership data has been throu­gh a harrowing time. Ditto for box office data, which continues to be do­dgy. It is the job of the industries that use these currencies to fix them, not the regulator.

Two, Barc came long after the UK’s Broadcast Audience Research Board (ow­ned mostly by broadcasters), the US’s Nielsen dependent system and France’s Médiamétrie (industry-owned and operated). It assimilates best practices from across the world in a tough market. This has been noted. Barc’s former founding CEO Partho Dasgupta could soon be helping setting up ‘Barc-like’ structures across three different continents.

But to ensure that no fingers are po­inted at it, a better system of rotating the board, getting smaller broadcasters, also advertisers and agencies, more involved is needed. While advertisers don’t complain about ratings, none have stood up for Barc publicly. If Barc wants to change the (somewhat accurate) perception that it is run by large broadcasters, it will have to work harder at co-opting all its shareholders into taking ownership of the metric and being its public face.

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