The most essential, if rarely discussed, tool that lies at the core of the television business — audience ratings — appears to have moved front and centre into public discourse. Not, one must add, to the system’s or its vendors’ advantage.
Why have ratings at all?
Media audience measurement first began with newspaper and magazine circulation audits. As marketers spent ever larger sums on advertising in the print media, they were curious to know how many copies of a particular publication were sold and where. From the publishers’ point of view, a larger circulation claim translated into a better price for their column inches.
A solution was found in establishing a neutral body that would commission accounting firms in good standing to audit the paid circulation of a participating publication. The US formed the first audit bureau in 1914. The International Federation of Audit Bureaux describes its objective thus: “The assurance of accurate circulation claims and other information is of significant value to both advertisers and media alike. The value to advertisers, their advertising agencies, is the essential factor of accountability of advertising investments.”
This is the logic of and objective behind all audience measurement, including television ratings.
But, ratings and audits are different. All copies of a publication are produced under the publisher’s control. Television channels, however, can be accessed by tapping a pipe that carries the signal, which is not under the broadcaster’s control. The only way to gauge who watches what is to go back to the audience and ask. Because asking 100 million homes what they are watching is clearly impossible, a statistical sample is employed to estimate viewing behaviour of this huge mass.
Sampling for ratings
Resources available for any research are finite. Rating systems must, therefore, prioritize audiences according to their attractiveness to advertisers. If the bulk of the advertising rupee is chasing young, urban, better educated and higher income consumers, that is where the ratings system will follow. TAM Media Research Pvt. Ltd in India claims to represent about 32 million homes in specific geographies and socio-economic groups. Any extrapolation (or interpolation) to uncovered segments is obviously uncertain and unreliable.
So, what is the problem?
As India’s economy expands more than 8% annually, the propensity to spend continues to spread. New audiences, not just for fast moving consumer goods, but? urables, personal transportation, telecom and financial services and so on, emerge. Television widens its appeal by channels in new languages. A future ratings system cannot ignore these massive changes. Finally, ratings are not just a tool for the advertising buyer. If a broadcaster wants to attract advertising spend, he must aggregate a measurable audience. No matter how good a show might be, no ratings equals no money. Programmers must produce shows that drives ratings.
The author is president, ad sales and distribution, Star India Pvt. Ltd
As told to Anushree Chandran