Mumbai: After facing mounting pressure from publishers pointing to perceived anomalies in its crucial readership survey data for 2006, the National Readership Studies Council (NRSC) is now evaluating two research providers, incumbent ACNielsen ORG-MARG Ltd and IMRB International, for future surveys.
Since 2004, ACNielsen has been functioning as the single research agency for the council’s National Readership Survey, which tracks the readership of newspapers and magazines in India.
“We have been reviewing presentations from various research bodies,” said Sam Balsara, chairman, technical committee, of the council. “We had contacted five research bodies initially, and now we have narrowed our list to two.”
Balsara, who also heads advertising services firm Madison Communications Pvt. Ltd, declined to elaborate or confirm the finalists’ names. It is also unclear when the council will finalize its research provider.
The council conducts one of the largest readership surveys in India annually, covering 284,373 house-to-house interviews and 535 publications and includes representatives of Advertising Agencies Association of India, Audit Bureau of Circulations and the Indian Newspaper Society.
“I think that the general grouse among publishers is that there is a declining trend in readership, despite circulation increasing,” notes Chandradeep Mitra, president, Optimum Media Solutions, the media specialist arm of Mudra Group. He adds: “It is clear now that the NRS will have to be revamped in total, whether it’s in terms of methodology, structure or back-checks. A newly revamped NRS should only be able to share its findings by early 2009 since it’s a significantly large study. By sheer default, IRS (rival Indian Readership Survey) would be the only readership currency around.”
IRS is conducted by Media Research Users Council (MRUC), a non-profit comprising major advertisers, ad agencies, publishers and other media representatives. IRS has an annual sample size of about 250,000 respondents.
“I think most publishers witnessed a disconnect between ground reality and the figures as given by NRS 2006,” says Devendra Darda, executive director, Lokmat Newspapers Pvt. Ltd, the publisher of Lokmat. “We had increased the circulation of Lokmat by around 150,000 copies. Yet,we found that our readership figures came down in NRS 2006. This is true of most publishers.”
Adds Bhaskar Group executive director Bharat Kapadia: “Readership surveys have come under a lot of criticism in recent days. Publishers feel, and rightly so, that the economy is growing, the circulation is growing and yet the growth is not reflected in the readership figures.”
A case in point was Hindi newspaper Nai Duniya, which until 2005 (as per NRS) had a readership of 765,000. In 2006, the NRS figures saw that figure fall to 723,000. Then the council came up with a revised estimate in November showing readership numbers for Nai Duniya at 1,107,000.
Also in November, the NRS had to issue a clarification for wrongly representing the population of areas such as Ghaziabad, Moradabad and Bareilly, as also the rural population figures of Tripura, Meghalaya and Yamunanagar district, which caused anomalies in data.
Even some sections of the magazine industry aren’t too happy with NRS methodology.
“NRS does not capture data adequately for magazines,” insists Maheshwar Peri, president and publisher, Outlook Group. “I sell more than 4,000 copies of Outlook in Bhopal, yet it doesn’t seem to reflect in the data. These surveys ignore the SEC A (the most sought after readership) segment. They interview the lower SEC groups. Hence, numbers for magazines like Elle and Vogue would never show.” Peri adds that the national spread of magazines is also not reflected in the numbers (beyond the five major metros).
HT Media Ltd, the publisher of The Hindustan Times and Hindustan has also had issues in the past with some NRS data. HT Media is also the publisher of Mint.
Despite the issues with data, not everyone blames the data provider, ACNielsen.
“I think that it’s a capable research agency and one that can deliver,” says Darda of Lokmat. “But, it is the brief that needs to be revised. If the questionnaire runs into tens of pages, what respondent will answer correctly? Read the first 15 pages, you wouldn’t even reach to the questions related to print publications.”
ACNielsen declined to comment for this story.
Others, such as Kapadia from Bhaskar Group, wonder about the long-term merits of have two separate readership studies.
“IRS conducted by the MRUC and NRS conducted by NRSC both spend Rs5 crore plus per annum on research,” he notes. “These monumental sums are funded by the industry. If we have one robust survey, in place of two, then a lot of money can be invested (into) putting systems right.”