Indias television audience measurement currency, TAM Ratings in popular parlance, took an extended holiday through the last calendar quarter of 2012. The break, occasioned by the mandatory analog sunset in the four top metropolitan markets, was designed to ensure that short-term volatilities in viewership behaviour expected to arise on account of change in the domestic set-up did not trigger precipitate actions in media buying. That period has now passed and the ratings are back to business as usual.
What appears to have taken a lot of people by surprise is this: There doesnt seem to be a lot of difference in the absolute and relative pictures, before and after the digital shift. Users are perplexed. Shouldnt such a dramatic shift cause a disruptive change in viewing behaviour Or is somebody hiding something
We will look at two distinct areas to find answers to these two questions.
Firstly, lets look at the statistics underlying the television ratings process. Television audience measurement starts with the Establishment Survey. This survey, administered to a random sample of the population that the ratings are meant to measure, produces a cross sectional snapshot of television consumption behaviour. It asks questions such as: How many households in the population How many television homes What mode delivers signals to the TV: analog or digital If digital is access DTH, digital cable, IPTV or something else Taken together with basic classification, or taxonomy, questions, it builds a fine-grained image of the population whose viewership we propose to study.
The next stage involves establishing market priorities and rank ordering geographies based on these priorities. These rank orders transform into weightages and sampling proportions that will determine the allocation of the proposed metered sample. The higher the market priority and the more diverse the underlying population, the more intensively it will be sampled, to tease out its texture. A culturally diverse Vadodara, for example, would likely need more intensive sampling than a relatively more homogenous Ahmedabad. The next statistical phenomenon is the well-known Paretos Principle. Viewing tends to concentrate around a few big channels and shows with the rest getting distributed across a very long tail. In other words, 80% of viewing is accounted for by just 20% of channels / shows. These channels are, by definition, indispensable for the audience and no distribution platform operator dare drop them from his platforms for fear of a major audience backlash. Whether the platform is analog or digital, these channels will always be available, and in fairly prominent positions too. While the digital shift will almost definitely broaden the channel choice available to a viewer, the viewer will first seek out channels in her traditional comfort zone. While it might be argued that there may be differential rates of adoption of digital connections in different segments of the population, empirical data suggests that even in the laggard markets in the first round of digitisation, over 75% of homes have gone digital. No wonder that there is so little change in the ratings outcomes.
Secondly, the initial picture may be very different from the long-term outcomes that lie ahead over the months and years to come. There are almost certainly a lot of people secretly relieved that the digital transition has brought few changes. Conversely, there are even more who were hoping for disruption that hasnt arrived and feel disheartened. My sense Too early for either reaction. The television landscape we see around us is a creature and creation of an era of scarcity brought on by the very limited channel capacity that analog platforms are able to offer. Even the 850 MHz headends that became popular in Indias analog cable plant over the last few years are barely able to carry 80 channels with reasonable fidelity. The sudden expansion, nay, explosion in carrying capacity that the digital switchover augurs will only become meaningful once content that was thus far unable to find a way of reaching its audience takes up the space. This content will tend to address a narrower, tighter audience definition with focussed content. The first reaction to the digital switch is to seek comfort in the familiar, as we saw earlier, but soon enough, viewers will begin to explore the new delights hidden within the set-top box. This is when the slow but sure transition from one-size-fits-all to different-strokes-for-different-folks begins. And television changes from supply-push to demand-pull.
We are seeing the birth of a whole new FMCG category. Cable Television.
The author is an independent media consultant.