Last week, at least two direct-to-home (DTH) companies promised to study viewership data from their set-top boxes. On 7 March, viewership measurement agency Broadcast Audience Research Council (Barc) India announced that it was partnering Airtel Digital TV for return path data (RPD). A statement from the council said that it had tied up with Airtel Digital TV to include its subscriber homes into the Barc India RPD panel. (For RPD, the set-top boxes need to be two-way, that is, they have to have a return path. Barc can monitor set-top boxes that have the hardware and software which makes them two-way and hence measurable. The information the two-way boxes can fetch is which channel is being watched, when and for how long.)

The same week, DishTV, the DTH platform from Essel Group, also announced it will study data from its hybrid set-top boxes deployed in consumer homes. However, DishTV did not announce any tie-up with Barc. Instead it said that it had seeded close to three million hybrid set-top boxes in the market and will deploy RPD technology in these. With RPD technology, it will be able to gather real-time data on viewing patterns of customers across regions.

DishTV’s chairman and managing director Jawahar Goel says that the company will collect data for its own use. “We need to know which channel does well in which time slot and in which market. For instance, football may do well only in the North-East, Goa and West Bengal, but broadcasters ask us for payments for all-India viewership. With data from our set-top boxes, we can then renegotiate our deals with them. The same will be true for family soaps," he says. Basically, data from set-top boxes will help DishTV determine which channels are popular in which regions so that it can package and price them accordingly.

Goel, however, says he’s not averse to sharing the data with whosoever wants it, including Barc. “We are not a competitor to Barc," he adds.

Whether or not DishTV and Barc come together for RPD from set-top boxes remains to be seen, but the fact is that any enhancement in viewership information is a welcome step. All television advertising is decided on the basis of viewership numbers.

To be sure, last year, Barc tied up with cable TV distributor DEN Networks to collect data from its digital boxes. According to Barc India chief executive Partho Dasgupta, these tie-ups will make Barc data more robust and RPD will give the industry a cost-effective way of expanding the sample size.

Agrees Anita Nayyar, chief executive (India and South Asia) at Havas Media: “It will be good to get the viewership data from DTH and cable operators as there is a large audience sitting on these platforms which goes unmeasured."

With DEN Networks, Barc is currently at a pilot stage for measuring TV viewership using RPD via its digital set-top boxes. This means that it has started receiving data from some DEN Networks set-top boxes which is currently being validated. Barc will be collecting all viewership information from these boxes. “It will ultimately be reflected in our viewership data of about 560-plus channels that we measure," says Dasgupta.

Quite clearly, set-top box readings will help Barc India increase its panel size multifold. With a target to have a panel of 40,000 homes with every operator, Barc’s sample size could eventually touch 200,000-250,000 homes as opposed to the 30,000 homes today. “This will add to the robustness of our data, especially for small/regional genres. It will also allow for comprehensive TV viewership, VoD (video-on-demand) and distribution platform operators’ (DPOs’) in-house channels," he says.

The data set will be useful for DPOs like DTH and cable operators to help understand the viewing behaviour of their own customers, enabling them to use it effectively for subscriber management and content strategy.

The enhanced panel size will also curb panel tampering. Panel tampering is easier among channels/genres with small viewership base. With RPD, sample size of even smaller genres will be sufficiently large, making tampering that much more challenging.

Dasgupta says that while it is DishTV’s decision whether or not to join a larger panel, Barc proposes an equitable partnership with all DPOs and DTH firms for RPD measurement. “We have been in talks with all the major cable and DTH operators in the country, including DishTV…we welcome all operators for this partnership, which would be a win-win for all," he adds.

Clearly, with access to larger audience viewing patterns as a result of collating data from set-top boxes belonging to different DPOs, broadcasters, advertisers and platform owners stand to benefit.

Shuchi Bansal is Mint’s media, marketing and advertising editor. Ordinary Post will look at pressing issues related to all three. Or just fun stuff. Respond to this column at shuchi.b@livemint.com

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