News channels blame weekly ratings for quality decay

News channels blame weekly ratings for quality decay

New Delhi/Mumbai: The country’s television news channels are blaming the ratings system for driving them towards headlines that are sensational, reporting that’s breathless, bulletins that are loaded up with celebrity gossip and programming that’s aimed at the lowest common denominator.

It’s the relentless weekly pressure to perform that’s bringing out the worst in them, according to the channels. The News Broadcasters Association (NBA), the body representing scores of such channels, has suggested a possible solution to viewership monitoring agency TAM Media Research Pvt. Ltd—announce the TV rating points (TRPs) every month instead of every week.

TAM, a joint venture between Nielsen Co. and Kantar Media Research, compiles data on the market share of channels and their programmes to determine rankings.

Although TAM data is frequently criticized for several reasons—including inadequate sample size and not reflecting viewership patterns accurately—it continues to be the sole gauge used by advertising agencies to allocate advertising spend of about Rs1,500 crore among news channels.

News channels, which get about 15% of the total broadcast advertising budget, are considered a key segment for advertisers seeking male audiences above the age of 25.

TAM received the letter from NBA last week, said an executive of the research company, without elaborating. In the next few weeks, TAM will initiate talks with NBA to discuss the frequency of the ratings, he said.

The pressure of the weekly grading affects quality and leads to a scramble for ratings and advertising, according to senior executives at news broadcasting organizations.

“Whether you like it or not, advertising agencies look at TAM data for allocation of the advertising rupee," said a top executive at a news network, who didn’t want to be named as he’s not authorized to speak on the issue. “Unless television distribution is digitized and news channels generate significant income from subscription, we are solely dependent on advertising for revenue and succumb to the TRP pressure."

Barun Das, chief executive officer (CEO) of Zee News Ltd, declined to comment on the reasons behind the NBA request.

News channels should be left out of the ratings system, said Ashutosh (he uses one name), managing editor of IBN7, the Hindi news channel of the IBN18 Network. “Currently, there’s pressure on news channels to dumb down content to garner eyeballs," he said.

The weekly evaluation causes pressure to build up in newsrooms, according to editors at news channels. “Ratings determine everything, including the commercial spot rates that we can charge," said the editorial head of a Hindi news channel who wanted to remain anonymous. “In a sector where barely three news channels are making money, our viability depends on weekly TRPs and rankings."

Rajdeep Sardesai, editor-in-chief of IBN18 Network, which operates CNN-IBN, IBN7 and the Marathi IBN-Lokmat, defends the demand for monthly ratings. “Journalism is not box office. It cannot be judged every Wednesday," he said. “While TRPs are important, in English news channels, which have a small sample size anyway, TRPs should be seen as television respect points and focus on credibility of the news channels."

The argument hasn’t convinced media buyers at leading agencies or advertisers.

Abdul Khan, senior vice- president at Tata Teleservices Ltd that spearheads the Tata group’s presence in the telecom sector, cannot see how weekly ratings lead to poor content on news channels.

“The companies in the news business need to understand that this genre is different from entertainment and they must work towards bringing in better content anyway," he said. Globally, the thrust is on getting as “real time" as possible, Khan said. “The shorter the frequency (in ratings), the better it is for media plans."

News companies are indulging in a mindless race for ratings, said Neeraj Sanan, executive vice-president and head (marketing and distribution) at Media Content and Communications Services India Pvt. Ltd, which runs Star News. TAM’s initial role had been to help broadcasters understand the TV viewing universe better, he said. “Over time, TAM ratings are just used for CPRP (cost per rating point) deals and aggressive rate negotiation," Sanan added.

The race for ratings has led to poor content on news channels, he said. News was unlike general entertainment and had a different role to play, Sanan added.

“News companies should not benchmark themselves on which story will get most ratings," he said. Talks between NBA and TAM didn’t amount to a negotiation, but a correction of the market, especially given that the news industry was addressing fundamental questions on the very role of TAM. Sanan added in India, compared with other nations, news was getting increasingly commercialized. “News is being run by business people and not news people," he said.

Media plans will be disrupted if the data is released monthly, said Anita Bose, executive vice-president at VivaKi exchange, the centralized buying agency for Publicis Groupe SA. Media agencies need immediate insights to plan for advertisers, she said. “Even the current weekly data charts are too late for that," Bose said. “If my existing inventory is not performing, I have no way of knowing it (except on a monthly basis) and changing my strategy."

Media buyers will be happier to move in the opposite direction—a daily ratings system to devise advertising strategies. Globally, television research data is reported weekly or daily, depending on the specific requirement in a particular country. TAM’s research is used by individual channels, agencies and marketers, among others, said CEO L.V. Krishnan. “We would have to connect with each of our subscribers and ensure that this is what everyone wants," he said, referring to the demand for a change in the periodicity of the ratings. “We have to be sure that the full implications of this move are understood and the industry takes an informed decision."