New Delhi: There is more to the row over withholding television ratings by TAM Media Research, which were to have been released on Wednesday, than meets the eye.

Top executives of at least three broadcasting companies admitted that the News Broadcasters Association, which has the main national news channels as its members, was reluctant to have performance data made public before phase two of digitization was complete. Unlike the first phase in which the four metros were digitized, the second phase will cover 38 cities by 31 March.

Television viewership monitoring agency TAM issued a statement on Wednesday morning that it was delaying the release of the data in accordance with a request by the ministry of information and broadcasting “in concurrence" with the Indian Broadcasting Foundation (IBF), Advertising Agencies Association of India (AAAI), and the Indian Society of Advertisers (ISA).

“The reason for doing so is that the government of India has requested us to withhold release of news channels data by two or three days. The industry is meeting with the ministry to take a decision," the release said.

If TAM released data before the second phase of digitization, the multi-system operators (MSOs, or large cable networks), would ask for hefty carriage fees as the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) hadn’t fixed any rate, said the head of an English news channel on condition of anonymity.

“Although no private business wants government interference, things are different when the focus shifts from profit to profiteering," the channel head said, referring to carriage fees, which most channels in India have to pay for being carried on a cable network to a viewer’s home.

Carriage fees started being charged as the analogue cable system didn’t have enough space to accommodate the increasing number of television channels.

Currently, all the television channels put together pay 2,500 crore a year as carriage fees to cable operators. “The cost of carriage is horrific for news channels and jeopardizes the business model completely," the channel head said. “We are not against TAM."

A Hindi news channel owner privately admitted that in the post-digitization era, the news channel numbers had gone “haywire". “In such a situation, if the data is revealed the cable industry will try and extract its pound of flesh," said the person on condition of anonymity given the sensitivity of the matter.

Asked if the share of news channels and their television rating points (TRPs) had dropped, the TAM spokesperson said the data hadn’t been released. “We are not sure how news broadcasters are worried, if they are indeed, about fluctuations in the absence of numbers."

However, he added that the research agency’s job was to deliver the report card whether it was plus or minus. “We have not seen the data yet but there are bound to be fluctuations post digitization and we have enough ground checks," he said.

Interestingly, a senior member of the IBF, who is the industry body for entertainment channels, said that “the IBF, ISA and AAAI had appointed a three-member team to review the data during its suspension. They were satisfied with the data.

However, since some of the members, mainly from the news broadcasting fraternity, have raised concerns on data we will support them to make sure everyone is comfortable."

Ashok Mansukhani, director of Indusind Media and Communications Ltd, which operates the Incable network, said, “The news channels are stalling data not because of cable or carriage fees but because of the actual viewership numbers that may have to now show the advertisers," he said. “Carriage fee is a natural phenomenon worldwide which covers only part of the cost of digitization. In India, the broadcasters are not bearing the cost of the subsidization we are providing to convert the country’s cable system from analogue to digital. Even the government has not provided us any tax holidays or duty exemption for set top boxes."

Another representative of a large cable network also said that news channels may be stalling data as their numbers may not be great. “But why should we bear the whole network for them and bear the cost as well? Besides, cable was not on a level-playing field with DTH (direct to home), which could charge any carriage fee and could renegotiate it on a short-term basis. We fought our case and won in TDSAT (Telecom Disputes Settlement and Appellate Tribunal) on this."

The NBA spokesperson said it was not issuing any statement on the matter. NBA president K.V.L. Narayan Rao did not respond to text messages. However, the two news channel executives quoted earlier, who are also members of the NBA, said that they will impress upon TAM to release genre-wise data gradually and hold their data till February.

To be sure, media planners are not happy in the absence of data.

“High-stake properties are going on air everyday and there is no benchmark for ratings, which is causing huge ambiguity and confusion. Buying and planning is getting completely lost and no post evaluations are being done. No rating is like living in a blank world," said Mona Jain, chief executive at Vivaki Exchange, a media buying agency.

If the data is not released now, as planned earlier, then the impact of the migration won’t been known till January or February, said another executive at a media buying agency. “That means for three crucial months of the year we have no clue of ROI (return on investment)."

In October, IBF, ISA, AAAI and TAM had announced a temporary suspension of viewership data nationally as consumers in Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata and Chennai were migrating to a digital system.

The viewership data was suspended from 7 October to 8 December. Broadcasters were to resume subscribing to data from 19 December.
Aminah Sheikh and Vidhi Choudhary contributed to this story.