News channels should open up to more intensive audit
Forty news channels in the country, organised under the banner of the News Broadcasters Association (NBA), have demanded from TAM Media Research, the principal audience ratings agency, that viewer data is released once a month instead of the weekly format prevalent now. Since there are several licensed news channels unaffiliated to NBA, and many local cable operators have illegally created their own news services, the association`s voice is limited to some of the elite news brands.
Similarly, since TAM -- television audience measurement -- has a minor rival in aMap, which functions as an overnight audience measure, the tussle is limited and nuanced in scope and impact. Particularly so since TAM itself admits that it doesn`t have the resources to measure adequately viewers in towns and habitations below a population of 100,000, therein implicitly blaming the paying subscribers, such as those carping from the NBA platform, for starving it.
The subterfuge by incumbent channels lies in the simple fact that the principal rating agency has the money only for some 8,150 meters to measure a country with an estimated 150 million cable and satellite (C&S) homes.
If multiplied by an average household size of 5.2, TAM`s 8,000 meters are expected to represent around 800 million people. To defend its model, TAM obviously throws up figures wherein India`s people-per-meter ratio shows up very favourably. But it is no one`s case that the numbers merely skim the surface of a vast and diverse nation.
The end-user, here the media buyer, utilises the TAM numbers for want of a better option -- also mindful of their limitation, but useful, no doubt -- in arm-twisting channels as and when the need arises.
It is worrying therefore that the current NBA-TAM imbroglio has been positioned around a higher moral argument: That weekly numbers are crushing the altruistic intentions of these news channels. In other words, the worthy news providers and their iconic anchors won`t be caught associating with the sleazy combination of corruption, crime, cinema, cricket and controversy, if only the numbers came out once a month instead.
This silly assumption on the part of the broadcasters emerges from greater surveillance from civil society, social media sites, the courts and even the government, leaving these anchor-editors red-faced in defending rampant obscenity, voyeurism and jingoism.
The argument that monthly ratings would help is also based on some specious mathematical assumptions. Can adding an average rating of "two" over four weeks be anything more or less than "eight"? Particularly so since the media planner doesn`t buy television slots on a weekly basis -- the deals spread across several months. Even if TAM shuts shop on the weekly format, aMap will continue providing its overnight numbers and TAM then on a monthly basis.
Clearly, the NBA board, comprised as it is by corporate compulsions rather than mainstream editors, knows that TAM will run their hair-brain scheme with advertisers. Since advertisers love their numbers, they will resist any migration to monthly data. Then an impasse would result. The outcome: The "poor" NBA board will claim the victim`s perch and explain their present content to the tyranny of weekly rating monster.
Except the "chaddhi-banian" type of commercials, major advertisers seldom buy time in news channels on a solo basis. The campaigns are planned across platforms. So, weekly data, or the absence of it, doesn`t quite matter. That said, advertisers are programmed to armtwist smaller channels (there are several zero-rating channels out there!) in the midst of a release order.
But think about it: News genre garners barely six percent of the total advertising spend, wherein NBA members represent 60-70 percent of that fraction. So, even if taken hypothetically, the weekly ratings data is held back, the "bully" will still have 96 percent of the advertising spend, qualifying for status quo.
The sting lies in the tail. Instead of confusing heightened societal expectation, news channels should open themselves to more intensive forms of audit. They should lobby and pay for 8,000 more meters, several of them in rural India and the sensitive parts of the country such as northeast, Jammu and Kashmir, Chhattisgarh and the districts in the so-called "Red Corridor".
There is no doubt India can`t progress without Bharat being heard. But sample sizes, as well as samples per se, must also be representative. Accordingly, in an urban area, must not the middle class and the upper middle class also insist that their preferences are metered, along with the television sets of those being recruited at Rs.1,500 a year?
(11-09-2011-Rohit Bansal sat on the board of News Broadcasters Association for two years, helped set up the New Broadcasting Standards Authority. He is the founder and chief executive of Hammurabi & Solomon Consulting and can be reached at