TRP Scam: The rot runs deep


By DM Deshpande

The fake TV viewing rating points (TRP) allegations have been made by Mumbai police against a few TV channels. What was suspected for a long time, well, actually known, has now come in the open. While no one took the TRP on its face value, the extent of possible deviation from reality is indeed surprising even to the discerning observer. 

Relatively speaking, measuring readership of newspapers and magazines was easier though the Audit Bureau of Circulation (ABC) has its fair share of criticism. But with technology tools available now and the experience of nations in the west it is possible to assess the TV viewership with reasonable accuracy. To understand why the TRP may be way off the mark one needs to go into how exactly is the modus operandi.  

The task of aggregating TRP’s is entrusted in India with BARC India (Bureau of Audience Council of India). It is owned jointly by the media houses, broadcasters, advertisers, advertising agencies, TV channels et al. There are an estimated 84 crore active TV viewers in India. BARC has decided on a sample size of 44,000 homes pan India. The idea is to install counting machines, called Bar-O Meters in jargon, in these places which are supposed to be confidential. But their confidentiality is short lived; TV channels use ex-employees of third party vendors and agencies to whom the work of carrying out surveys is entrusted. The task becomes easier because the list is not revised often. Consultants to TV channels are also known to spy on several homes.  

Out of 44,000 homes, active monitoring takes place of 40,000 homes for the purpose of collecting viewership data. The remaining 4,000 is used for ‘rotating’ from time to time so that the sample is fresh and confidential. It is estimated that at any given time 1.87 lakh viewers are covered. It is hardly a representative sample, which is one of the pre-requisites of any survey method that uses sampling technique.

 TRAI had recommended that sample size be increased by 60,000 by now and to 1,00,000 by 2022. Prior to the arrival of BARC India in 2015, sample size was just 8,000. The division of the sample size, too, leaves a lot of ground uncovered. English speaking population in India is small, in relation to the population. Hence, it is only logical that homes selected for rating English news channels would be small. But the problem is since the total sample size itself is inadequate, it makes it easy to rig and distort TRP’s.  The sample size is not only small but can become more distorting as the genre becomes small as in case of English news channels. 

In Mumbai for example, BARC has installed 2000 bar-o-meters which is about five per cent of the total in the country. Taking one week’s data, the average reach of English news channels was just 0.4 per cent in Mumbai and the average time spent on them was 15 minutes. Hence, if a TV channel identifies even two ‘metered’ homes and pays them to view two hours instead of 15 minutes per week, the average time spent on viewing the channel goes up by a whopping 175 per cent, viz. 41 minutes per week!

Estimates vary but TV advertising is a Rs 25,000 crore industry. Advertisers depend on this data to take vital decisions. Higher TRP’s translate into higher advertising revenues. Still more important, distorted TRP’s mean doctored programs get promoted and while good ones languish. This is bad. Blame fake TRP’s for news channels persisting with a Bollywood star’s alleged suicide, drug abuse and worse continuously for weeks.  

There are allegations that identified metered homes are bribed to tamper with the ratings. A big, brand new TV is gifted and the household is given freedom to view any channel that they want. But they are told to use the old metered TV to be put on with a selected channel for a specified amount of time daily. It is also alleged that no one knew English in some of these homes.

Rigging is made easier by another aspect of modus operandi. BARC India uses third party vendors for various functions like installation, maintenance and operations of meters in identified homes. And it pays between Rs 150 to Rs 750 per month to households. As a result, the higher socio-economic class is generally disinterested in allowing these meters in their homes. Effectively this means 2.5 per cent of the total viewers are out of this measurement. Ironically, for advertisers it is one of the most important classes because of its higher purchasing power and social influence.

Yet, self regulation remains the best bet. Reach of TV channels is already facing a stiff challenge from digital and OTT platforms.  The state over reach and intervention is best avoided. If at all it is serious about tackling the problem, it can do two things- make rigging TRP’s a criminal offence and two, prevent or at least control venomous hate programs on our programs. Since most of the problems are because of conflict of interests (economic and social) it is better to realize that the answer lies in crowd funding and philanthropies as robust methods of funding at least a few ventures in this line.    

The author has four decades of experience in higher education teaching and research. He is the former first vice chancellor of ISBM University, Chhattisgarh.