Home / Opinion / Columns /  The news channel wars over use of landing page data

Last week, Zee Media Corp. Ltd, which operates a bouquet of television news channels, said it had pulled out of India’s TV viewership measurement system run by Broadcast Audience Research Council (BARC) India. The company attributed the decision to discrepancies in BARC data, shrinking share of news genre and no resolution of issues exposed during the news TRP scam of 2020. In its note, Zee Media said the “biggest concern" was that BARC continues to report the ‘landing pages’ that impact ratings favourably for those who use them. It called out the use of landing page as an “unethical practice" and asked BARC to stop reporting data for its 14 news channels.

The landing page issue has been simmering for long, with news channels which don’t use it calling it an unfair practice even though the fact is that most of them have made use of it at some point.

A landing page is nothing but the TV channel that appears on the screen first when a viewer switches on the set top box. Since BARC records the ratings of all that is consumed on TV, its viewing also gets recorded.

The use of the landing channel is best explained by a cable distribution expert. “Since all TV is addressable through a set top box, the cable operator decides what will be the landing channel when you switch on your set top box. Every operator—cable or DTH—has a landing channel or the first page which is his real estate. And broadcasters pay him to be on his landing page so that theirs’ is the default channel that is seen when the set top box is activated," he explained, declining to be named.

When you switch on your set top box and you land on, say, a news channel, the BARC reading kicks in. If a viewer spends a little time on the channel before changing it, it helps boost its viewership and reach, which forms the basis of selling ads. So, TV channels which can pay money to book landing pages seem to be getting advantage from the practice, much to the discomfort of others.

“Is it illegal? No. Not so far. Is it an unfair advantage? Yes, it is, because I as a customer may not be wanting to see that news channel but because I switch on my TV, I’m watching it and I’ve watched it till I change it," said the cable industry expert.

However, opinion is divided on whether the practice is unethical. An executive at a leading news channel said that broadcasters who have entertainment and news TV are the biggest users of landing page in their entertainment business. But they express shock when their rivals use it in the news business.

“It’s a marketing tactic. It’s just like a company pays Google to be in its top four searches. In that case, that should be unfair too," said a broadcast industry executive.

The price for use of landing page runs into crores depending on the time period and the number of households a channel wants to target. Most channels buy landing pages for a fixed duration. Eventually, the bump-up in ratings that a channel gets is not sustainable, unless such sampling leads to conversion.

While the clamour against the use of landing page is growing, it is not easy for BARC to change the algorithm. A BARC official said the agency has measures in place to catch forced viewing. BARC’s outlier detection programme has a component to treat landing pages where forced viewing is removed and voluntary viewing is retained. “However, in certain conditions, when some broadcasters do very heavy landing page use, some of the forced viewing may go through as finally it is an algorithm," the person explained.

Since news genre is small and the time spent on it is very low, even a slight change may make a difference to its viewership data.

Given that currently there is no indication from the government or the regulator deeming landing page use illegal, the chaos is likely to continue. “If the regulator steps in, channels will be mindful," said the BARC official.

The best solution, however, will be for the news broadcasters to protect the interests of the industry and speak in one voice for the change they want to see.

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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