A TV grab from Telugu 360's sting operation
The website, Telugu 360, has broken open the ratings controversy that has been brewing around the suspected manipulation of viewership numbers by various channels in the Telugu market. It has conducted 30 sting operations with various individuals who were tasked with the management of metered households for BARC India.
The agents involved in this, according to Telugu 360, approach the Broadcast Audience Ratings Council (BARC) personnel installing the meters and get details of households selected. It is not clear from the videos uploaded whether BARC India has subcontracted the management of households to these local agents, or if it is a simple case of leaked information.
The agents then visit the households and convince them to watch the channels they are promoting for a fee. Each of the agents has said on camera that they have some 15 to 20 households under their ‘control’ and can get them to watch news channels for a fee of 1000 rupees and entertainment channels for 2500 rupees. If the agent ‘manages’ viewers for 4 news channels and 2 entertainment channels, then he will earn 1,30,000 rupees for 15 households and 1,80,000 for 20 households.
Channels bear these costs of ‘managing’ the willing households fitted with meters. They also directly call the households and verify if viewership is actually happening on the ground.
The agents tutor the men and women in the compliant homes to tune in discreetly, clocking two hours per channel in various day-parts, so that the patterns of viewing do not give rise to suspicion. They also tutor them on how to answer the BARC India inspection teams when they come to check.
It is obvious from the sting footage that all the participants in the deal know that this is fraudulent and that they are playing along for money. Some women have also said that channel personnel call to check if they are watching as per requirement, as well. From the video footage it appears, the reporter has pretended to be the representative of a channel who has come to negotiate with the agents and the viewers.
In the videos uploaded so far, some 10 major Telugu entertainment and news channels have been mentioned. The website has uploaded the details of the personnel indulging in this along with the videos of them describing the modus operandi.
Broadcast Audience Ratings Council India has barred the reporting of ratings of two Telugu channels, TV9 and V6 along with India News, “from week 46 to 49 of 2016 due to suspected malpractices.” . India News got a stay from the Bombay High Court, and V6 and TV9 have approached the court. The sting comes close on the heels of these developments.
As far back as in February this year, BARC India CEO Partho Dasgupta revealed that BARC India people are being approached by channels for information about metered households .
The battle to corner the 181 billion rupee advertising pie at stake in the Indian television market has been raging across the country and has manifested in the over-crowded Telugu market in more virulent ways.
Some months ago, a senior management person of Sakshi TV complained that the day-wise ratings of ETV (week 36 to 41, saw an increase of 294%) and ABN-Andhrajyothi (week 32 to week 41, saw an increase of 302%) were suddenly spiking upwards, without any major event or change in programming to account for it.
Similar unexplained wild fluctuations were observed in other cases and the complaints reached BARC, who apparently were unable to secure the ratings process from manipulation. However, with the reporting of some channels’ ratings finally banned, and with the names of several other channels coming out in the sting, it is unclear how this is to be understood. Do we see the disciplinary action as a positive step or do we say that the system appears to have lost its credibility comprehensively? With the issue now in court, it is to be seen how this high stakes game will end.
When the BARC system began, there was much hope resting on it as it is run by three major industry bodies, the Advertising Agencies Association of India, The Indian Society of Advertisers, and Indian Broadcasting Foundation, under the guidelines of the Information and Broadcasting Ministry. None of the agencies is allowed to hold more than 10% stake in its ownership.
The earlier system under TAM were covering 225 towns, comprising 9100 homes and 40,000+ individuals from January 2013 (as quoted in the TRAI Consultation Paper on Guidelines/Accreditation Mechanism for Television Rating Agencies in India dated 17 April 2013).
Unlike the TAM system, BARC India has increased its sample size to 20,000 households, with a provision to increase it to 50,000, gradually by adding 10,000 each year. It has also included a rural sample and has put in place a new socio-economic category (SEC) based on the education of the primary breadwinner of the family and asset ownership from a set of 11 asset categories.
The programmes are watermarked on the audio track of the 427 participating channels and weekly sweeps of ratings data are generated from the BAR-O-meters set up at statistically chosen sample households.
BARC set up a network of managers to maintain the meters and to train the recruited viewer-households. This then appears to have become the weak link, with these individuals themselves becoming complicit in manipulating the system for fairly small sums of extra money.
Often one hears loud proclamations of self-regulation from the media industry. BARC India is a body controlled and run by the three respected industry associations. Some of the member channels are working full time to undermine all efforts at evolving a credible system of ratings, primarily because they have entered a crowded, unsustainable market, and appear to see no fair way of dealing with competition.
The viewers’ real reactions or preferences are also being betrayed in this process of manipulation. Ravish Kumar of NDTV India in an impassioned address was seen asking the audience why they watch television news when it is no longer news. Perhaps, those who manage ratings have an answer to this.
The only silver lining in this sordid saga is perhaps the fact that not enough members of audiences are watching the unappetising mess dished out to them, and the channels are finding other means to snare advertising rupees. It is reassuring to know that the audience are steadfastly refusing to dumb down!
Link to all the 30 sting videos: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCfyc9XT-5GZ1H26e2tJignw/videos