Home / Opinion / Columns /  Another twist in the tale of falling IPL viewership

The saga of the Indian Premier League (IPL) is getting curiouser and curiouser. Even as the last date to purchase the tender document for media rights for its next five seasons draws closer, there is no sign of TV viewership improving. At last count, its viewership was still 24% less than last year’s IPL season.

Last week, this column had argued that IPL fatigue may be one of reasons for the drop, given that viewers have watched four IPLs in 18 months as last year’s game was conducted in two phases.

The other contention was that the IPL being a celebrity-led game, with the top four-five star cricketers misfiring, the interest in the matches may have waned. Then of course, the chatter that increased mobility and reopening of offices have robbed TV of its viewers. “Reasons for the decline in IPL viewership are miscellaneous and often conflicting. But one of the reasons could be issues with BARC data as it reset the sample homes," said a broadcast network executive familiar with the developments. The Broadcast Audience Research Council or BARC India measures TV viewership.

In past years, a segment of 8 million people was classified as heavy IPL viewers. These people used to spend 1,200 minutes or more on an IPL season. But this year, this number has either diminished or vanished. “Of the 8 million, 2.7 million viewers are still there, but they are no longer heavy viewers. That segment, you can argue, establishes that IPL viewership has dropped. However, the remaining 5.3 million seem to have fallen off the map and no longer exist. That you could argue is a function of the panel being reset," said the person, adding that this may not be the single definitive reason behind the decline.

However, nearly 10 million pay TV homes have disconnected their cable or Direct-to-Home (DTH) connections in the last two years, he added. In the metros, people may be cord-cutting to join streaming platforms, while in semi-urban and rural areas, viewers are switching to Doordarshan’s free-to-air DTH platform Free Dish.

Clearly, if BARC data is causing a stress on viewership, its impact would not be limited to the IPL. To be sure, several TV channel executives Mint spoke to privately admitted that there have been sudden and unexplained changes in viewership data. Several pay TV channels—both news and entertainment in Hindi and regional languages—have registered lower viewership.

A sure-shot winner like Naagin on Colors, besides other reality TV shows, has seen its ratings plunge. Hindi and regional news channels too have seen their audiences thin. “Channel owners are flummoxed and at their wits’ end trying to figure out what’s wrong. They have been raising queries with BARC though there are no clear answers yet," said an executive at a broadcast network. “The entire ecosystem seems to have been disrupted," added another.

BARC itself is grappling with the issue. Speaking on condition of anonymity, a BARC executive explained the panel homes have not been reset. BARC has meters in 40,000 homes and at an estimated 4.5 to 5 people per home, it monitors viewership habits of 230,000 people. But to extrapolate the 200,000+ viewership to 1 billion people, it does a baseline survey every two years which has a sample size of 300,000 to 400,000 people. It studies their viewership behaviour, profile, and demographics and is used to pro-ject the panel homes.

But baseline survey has not been conducted for the last four years due to the pandemic. “So, BARC took the Indian Readership Survey 2019 and did the extrapolation on that basis. This change in viewership pattern may have been caused by that as possibly in that the pay TV versus free TV homes ratio may be skewed. Free TV homes may have artificially gone up," said the executive, cautioning that even this was a hypothesis. “Once the new baseline study is completed in September-October, we will know what happened to the viewers."

Meanwhile, the argument that IPL viewership may have moved online to Disney+ Hotstar, is also dismissed by a person in the know who said that even online audiences are lower this year. The jury is still out on whether BARC numbers are whacky, interest in cricket is fading, or total time spent on all screens has dropped!

Shuchi Bansal is Mint’s media, marketing and advertising editor. Ordinary Post will look at pre-ssing issues related to all three. Or just fun stuff.

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