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The curtains are not yet down on the television news channel ratings drama. It’s an ongoing saga involving manipulation of television rating points (TRP), mysterious suspension of news ratings, their prolonged absence, and, now, the reluctance to restart them despite the government’s intervention. Add to this the bitter rivalry between the two news channel associations—the News Broadcasters & Digital Association (NBDA) and the News Broadcasters Federation (NBF)—with some members of the latter alleging that member channels of the NBDA are stalling the ratings despite the mandate from the ministry of information and broadcasting (I&B).

Earlier this month, the I&B ministry asked the Broadcast Audience Research Council (BARC) India, the TV viewership measurement company, to resume publishing data for the news genre. Access protocols for data have been revamped and tightened, the ministry said, directing BARC to release data with immediate effect. The directive has been followed by dead silence from BARC, which has been at the centre of controversy ever since the alleged TRP scam surfaced in 2020 and its former officials were arrested briefly in the aftermath.

Though some say news ratings will resume in March, so far, they have not surfaced, irritating several news broadcasters. TV9 Network’s chief executive officer (CEO) Barun Das has been the most vocal among them. He has repeatedly said vested interests of two or three news channels enjoying the advertising revenue advantage of their old rankings and viewership have prevailed in stalling the ratings for so long.

Speaking in support of Das, a person familiar with the operations of BARC said BARC’s board appears to be succumbing to pressure as usual. “Why else do you think BARC went dark on news ratings in the first place," he said, declining to be named. The urgent need for viewership data is understandable. With elections in five states in the next two months, news viewership is bound to spike, allowing channels a chance to revise their ad rates and pump up volumes.

Some say BARC may be trying to avoid a situation where it gets caught between sparring channels during peak elections when the stakes are high. On the other hand, what continues to intrigue media experts is the troubling silence of advertisers which have a presence on BARC’s board. Advertising and broadcasting veteran Chintamani Rao has pointed to this big anomaly over and over again. As TV ad pie grows, nearly 5,000 crore is spent on news channels by advertisers. “If it’s their money fuelling the system; why hasn’t anyone heard from them on the matter? At the risk of repeating myself, it is strange that Indian Society of Advertisers and Advertising Agencies Association if India—which are 40% stakeholders—remain silent on the issue," he said.

Officially, BARC did not respond to Mint’s queries on the ratings delay and whether it’s siding with a few channels.

However, speaking on condition of anonymity, a BARC executive denied that the measurement firm was taking sides. He explained that during parleys with the ministry, very early on, BARC had said it will take 8-10 weeks to resume news genre data. “The delay in resumption is being politicized and the larger overhaul suggested by the ministry and accepted by BARC has got lost in conspiracy theories," he said. Taking a leaf from the Shashi Shekhar Vempati report on improving BARC’s functioning and the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India’s recommendation on the matter, the ministry, under a new secretary, has asked for four independent directors to be appointed to BARC’s 10-member board.

It has also advised the induction of independent members in the technical committee where broadcasters should not be in the majority. “BARC is finalizing the ratio," the executive said. Similarly, the oversight committee should not have paid employees of BARC on board.

That the ministry has also constituted a committee to study the Return Path Data (RPD) methodology to boost the sample size is also in the public domain. “These are building blocks to revamp the ratings firm. And to those asking if the systems have been strengthened, I’d say, BARC systems are kosher; it’s people in the news business themselves who violate panel homes," he said. Clearly, the only solution to put an end to this off-screen drama is integrity of purpose of all stakeholders.

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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