Opinion | Trai-BARC fracas amid disruption and new paradigm

Trai feels that by not publishing data on its website, BARC may be favouring a few stakeholders

On 24 February, the Press Trust of India first reported that the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) has directed Broadcast Audience Research Council (India), or BARC, to immediately release the TV viewership data for the past weeks. It said the agency, which measures and releases data on television consumption, has not complied with Trai’s previous instructions.

Basically, Trai wants BARC to publish data on its website in public interest. However, in its earlier two notes to BARC, Trai had only mentioned that the viewership measurement should not be interrupted when the transition to the new tariff order (NTO) takes place.

To be sure, the NTO for the broadcast and cable sector makes way for consumers to opt for channels they wish to watch and pay only for them. NTO mandates that every channel should be offered on à-la-carte basis, with clearly mentioned maximum retail price for each channel.

Earlier this month, the regulator extended the deadline for consumers to choose their channels up to 31 March 2019. The order has, without doubt, led to temporary chaos as consumers chose their channels during the transition. For some, the cost may go down and, yet for others, the cable TV/DTH bills may rise, given that the channels were earlier bundled together and given at a discount.

To be fair, despite the disruption, BARC has been measuring viewership data and making it available to all its subscribers. The only thing it did not do was publish it on its website. Now, Trai has taken exception to that. It feels that by not publishing data on its website, BARC may be favouring a few stakeholders who may have been impacted adversely due to the release of the data.

The fact is that the viewership data is already available with the broadcasters as well as advertisers—who are BARC’s clients—and they were already aware of the adverse impact of the current volatility in data, if any.

In fact, a couple of weeks ago, the executive council of the Indian Society of Advertisers (ISA) had also issued an advisory, saying that viewership data provided by BARC during the transition period should not be used for media planning, evaluation and buying perspectives.

The ISA is the national body of advertisers, which promotes and protects the rights of its members and is a 20% stakeholder in BARC.

BARC is currently “taking a considered view" on the Trai directive in consultations with its stakeholders. It says it has not stopped publishing viewership data for subscribers. It also claims that it published limited amount of data on its website—intended only for the larger benefit and information of trade and media, which has been “temporarily" held back “to avoid misrepresentation…without looking at the larger context of NTO rollout…".

Several media industry experts say there’s merit in withholding data during disruption. Says media expert Raj Nayak: “BARC continues to publish data to its subscribers. It is not detailed on its website because of the volatility of the data, given the churn that is taking place at the moment. In my opinion, it is the right thing to do until data stabilizes. The stakeholders are getting the data so it should not affect anybody."

Agrees Anita Nayyar, chief executive of Havas Media, India and South-East Asia: “The fact is that even if data is going to be curated, broadcasters will not be sure if their channels will get reflected (accurately). The second-rung channels are likely to get impacted till the whole regime gets regulated and executed. The whole idea that viewers get to watch what they want is in the larger interest but if some people get affected positively and some negatively and the data that comes out is erratic and uncertain, there is no point in publishing it now."

Even Abneesh Roy, senior vice president, Edelweiss Securities, who tracks media companies, says that there is so much disruption on ground that even if data is brought out at this point, it will not come out right. The DTH operators have been able to implement NTO much faster, while MSOs have been slower. “So any broadcast company with better relationships with the former can benefit and there are serious dollars spent on these things. Plus, no one wants chaos right before the elections: news channels need complete visibility," he said.

While the implementation of the new tariff order may be ill-timed just ahead of national elections, as confusion among consumers prevails and some channels may lose reach and viewership, the current fracas behind the broadcast regulator and autonomous body BARC is perplexing.

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.