There are a couple of takeaways from the latest contest for the top spot between English television news channel India Today, formerly Headlines Today from the TV Today network, and the displaced market leader Times Now, from the Times Group under Times Global Broadcasting Co. Ltd. The first is that there isn’t much of a difference between the measurement results of the Broadcast Audience Research Council (BARC) and its much maligned rival TAM Media Research Pvt. Ltd: although their numbers may not be the same, both ratings systems have thrown up similar trends. In the case of India Today, both television currencies showed an increased reach for the rebranded channel ahead of Times Now. In Week 22, BARC ranked India Today higher than Times Now in ratings as well.

The second takeaway is related to the importance of distribution in channel ranking, especially in the news genre. News channel executives swear that if content is king, distribution is God. A big reason why India Today marched ahead of Times Now was its focus on expanding distribution reach.

Ever since BARC, the joint industry body, launched its television audience measurement system at the end of April, its findings—whether in terms of channel rankings, reach or viewership surge (as in the case of the Indian Premier League)—have been similar to TAM. However, broadcast executives argue that the real picture will emerge once BARC expands its sample size. Right now, with similar sample sizes, the two systems show matching trends. BARC will add more meters beginning July.

As far as the importance of distribution goes, a Business Standard report of 12 June said India Today surged ahead of Times Now owing to expansion in distribution, which led to more sampling of the channel. The channel had opted for dual frequency in as many as 70 cable networks as opposed to 29 in the case of Times Now, which gave it an edge over the latter. Dual frequency means that the channel is available in two places on the same network.

A statement by India Today said that the channel had taken the leadership slot within two weeks of its launch and was ahead of Times Now in terms of sampling, both at the all-India level and in the six mega cities in Week 22. It also claimed the maximum number of viewers in prime time in a specified target group.

Several news channel executives in rival companies agree that India Today’s aggressive distribution expansion helped it land the leadership position in channel rankings in the English news genre. This also means that the company would have paid more as carriage fee. Even today, a national Hindi news channel pays as much as 40-50 crore a year to cable operators to be seen across India. English news channels spend lower as they give the smaller towns a miss and concentrate their investment in large cities: they spend close to 20-25 crore a year. For most news channels, lower carriage fee remains a pipe dream even after digitization has been rolled out: the fee, which declined 15-20% in the first phase of digitization, has been climbing as cable operators claim they need money to invest in digitizing their systems.

So, does content play any role at all in channel ranking? Opinion on the issue is divided. Some broadcast executives believe that since almost all news channels follow the same stories all day without too much differentiation, news is terribly commoditized. In such a scenario, the channel with the distribution edge marches ahead.

That is a simplistic view.

Content and branding both play an important role. Reach is just the number of people a channel is distributed to. Distribution is linear and directly proportionate to the amount of money spent: if you reach more households more people will see your channel.

A channel’s rating is a function of three things: reach, switching to the channel and the time spent on it. Switching to a particular channel is a function of brand pull. And the actual time spent on it depends on content. So, some find India Today’s excitement about occupying the lead slot based on one week’s ratings a tad over-the-top. In fact, Times Now’s viewers spent more time on the channel, driving up its relative share in English news.

In any case, with its insignificant half a per cent total share of television viewership, the English news genre is so fragile that even minor changes look significant.

It would help if the English news channel brands start measuring their viewership across their digital platforms too and not just on television.

That would be telling.

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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