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The biggest concern regarding the proposed chip installation in set-top boxes is that of invasion of privacy of consumers. Photo: Hemant Mishra/Mint
The biggest concern regarding the proposed chip installation in set-top boxes is that of invasion of privacy of consumers. Photo: Hemant Mishra/Mint

Installing chips in set-top boxes may raise privacy issues

Installing chips will also push up the cost of set-top boxes, say industry experts

A recent report by the Press Trust of India (PTI) said that the information and broadcasting ministry has proposed the installation of chips in new set-top boxes for televisions which will offer data on channels watched and their duration. The idea behind the proposal is to get more authentic viewership figures for every channel especially for Doordarshan, the public broadcaster, whose viewership the ministry feels is “under-reported". The move will allow advertisers to spend their money wisely, it argued.

The ministry has also told the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) that it proposes to ask DTH (direct-to-home) operators to install a chip in the new set-top boxes which can give data about the channels. Trai in turn has asked the ministry to refer the matter separately if it seeks its recommendations on the issue.

So does installing chips in set-top boxes to get viewership data makes sense?

Experts say that, for starters, the exercise of installing chips will be incomplete if the set-top boxes do not have return path data (RPD). As mentioned in this column earlier, for RPD, the set-top boxes need to be two-way, that is, they have to have a return path. Only the two-way boxes are measurable. The information the two-way boxes can fetch is which channel is being watched, when and for how long. For the purpose, set-top boxes will require an internet connection too.

Clearly, just a simple chip will not help in gathering data. Jawhar Sircar, former chief executive of Prasar Bharati which operates Doordarshan and All India Radio agrees: “Firstly, technical feasibility is an issue as just a mere chip is more like a gateway to the channels that you can access on your TV. Monitoring your choices (in terms of what you watch) requires people meters." Or boxes with return path.

Ashok Mansukhani, a cable industry veteran as well as the CEO and managing director of Hinduja Ventures Ltd, the holding company of Hinduja Group’s media firms, points out that the exercise is feasible only in the new set-top boxes. “What happens to the 90 million boxes which are already installed," he asks. The exercise will also push up the cost of the set-top box, he adds. According to a spokesperson for Broadcast Audience Research Council (Barc) India, the viewership monitoring agency has already started reading the DTH and Cable set-top boxes (STBs) for its RPD based viewership measurement. “This involves a tweak in STBs and putting dongle/sim cards to enable them to send back viewership data—in a similar way that we receive data from our BAR-o-meters," he says.

“With Return Path Data (RPD), we are looking at taking our current 30,000 panel home size to about 200,000 plus. RPD allows for reporting of comprehensive TV viewership in terms of time shifted and recorded viewing," he adds.

Mansukhani says that once the ministry installs the right technology, the collection of data will also be a complex task. “A specialised agency might be required to monitor. Else every Distribution Platform Operator (DPO) may give data which may be biased or fudged, if not audited. Storage and processing of data is a huge activity," he points out. A Barc spokesperson agrees that there is serious amount of processing, statistical algorithms, validation, extrapolation, demographic attribution etc involved with the help of sophisticated technology backbone. “We have been doing this for 3 years now, and are best placed to manage an operation of such complexity. We would be more than happy to share our expertise with government/DTH/Cable operators…" says the Barc spokesperson.

Besides, he says that Barc is operating strictly within government guidelines. “We have had government representatives from day one on our board and technical committee," he adds.

In fact Barc doesn’t agree that Doordarshan’s viewership is under-reported. All channels are accurately reported: “If that wasn’t the case, DD’s viewership wouldn’t spike during events like cricket matches, Olympics, Republic Day, movie telecasts, PM’s events etc", he says.

However, the biggest concern regarding the proposed chip installation is that of invasion of privacy of consumers. Says Jawhar Sircar: “With this exercise you will be getting into people’s bedrooms. It is intrusive and will raise issues of privacy." Barc, which measures TV viewership based on data collected from its people meters, for instance, takes written permissions from every consumer whose home it chooses to monitor. So in case of Barc, the consumer is not only aware but has agreed to allow the agency to study his media consumption habits.

“Besides, to improve DD viewership, you don’t need machines. You need fresh programming," Sircar adds.

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.

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