From an ineffectual sample size, an outdated NCCS mechanism, to zero transparency - the entire news ratings system is riddled with challenges, complexities, and controversies
By Avinash Pandey
Advertising mogul, William Bernbach once said, “All of us who professionally use the mass media are the shapers of society. We can vulgarize that society. We can brutalize it. Or we can help lift it onto a higher level.” Benbach’s golden words continue to hold true today and are even more pertinent at a time when vulgar brutalization has become prominent on television news.
The tales of yesteryear continue to impact the broadcast industry as it has been over three months since BARC India announced a 12-week ratings blackout for news channels. While the impact on ad revenues is one thing – this blackout period has subdued the brouhaha of primetime news.
Since October, both advertisers and broadcasters have expressed major concerns and apprehensions with regard to BARC data. But as the investigations into the scam widens, all stakeholders are adamant on the belief that ratings on news channels should remain suspended till BARC takes action to address the arbitrary nature of its functioning. This lack of transparency from BARC has also put a flashlight on the intrinsic nature of the measurement system, which is riddled with numerous vulnerabilities and loopholes.
Now, as we move towards recovery and revival in 2021, there is a need for us to step up and reject the unscrupulous method of measuring TRPs and work towards creating a tamper-proof system of audience measurement.
Focus should be on content values
In the recent past, many broadcasters and editors have pointed out that the absence of weekly viewership ratings of news channels has made TV news sane again. Earlier, it was all about being the loudest or selling content on the plank of attention.
BARC does not accurately measure the quality of attention that great content gets. It rather places focus on ‘time-spent’ and ‘quantity’, rather than ‘quality’. As marketing becomes more data-driven and evidence-based, it is critical to have a measurement system that demonstrates the quality of content in the right way to advertisers.
This issue occurs because BARC data uses the variable of ‘Average Time Spent (ATS)’. This variable enables sensationalism and hyper-aggressive journalism to thrive on news channels. High-granularity, high-frequency ratings have a corrosive effect on content. Creative teams, pressured by the ebbs and flows in viewership, resort to shrillness, sensationalism and improbable hyperbole to keep their audiences engaged. While only a few channels can be held accountable for such dramatic content, this mechanism is partially responsible for its burgeoning presence.
NCCS system needs a rejig
The households in which “BAR-O-meters” have been installed, are classified into 12 categories under the New Consumer Classification System (NCCS). The so-called “new SEC” which was adopted by BARC with much fanfare and hope in 2015, began to age almost as soon as the ink had dried on the page. This system is based on the education level of the chief wage earner and the ownership of consumer durables from a pre-defined list of 11 items – a feature which is severely outdated in the current scenario. Due to the current segmentation, marketers have to make decisions as per their own research, making BARC’s role completely redundant. Plus, if we look at the Nielsen PRIZM system that exists in the US, it is pertinent to note how ubiquitous it is and the wide variety of categories it has under its ambit. The PRIZM system defines every U.S. household in terms of 68 different demographic and behaviour segments to help marketers discern the consumers’ likes, dislikes, lifestyles, and purchase behaviours, which makes measurement more comprehensive and insights more precise & reliable. On the contrary, the Indian system of NCCS does not have the kind of segmentation which is required by marketers and advertisers for effective advertising.
Needless to say, India is too big and diverse to be treated as a homogenous market for any product, service, or media brand. It is not monolithic and we certainly cannot use one brush to paint it.
Secondly, the sample is extrapolated on the basis of an old study conducted in July 2018. BARC reports a universe of 197 million households whereas the actual households have increased to 209 million. (Source: Chrome DM). Apart from this, many states such as UP/UK are under-reported by BARC. The measurement body also reports 16.5 million households in the regions, whereas the households have increased to 22.3 million as per Chrome DM. Similarly, Delhi is reported by BARC with 5.4 million households whereas the number has increased to 8.2 million (Source: Chrome DM).
What’s more is that, major policy changes implemented by TRAI such as NTO (April, 2019) and NTO 2.0 (March, 2020) have completely upended viewership behaviours and changed the face of the TV universe, making the current mechanism outmoded.
Solutions for amelioration
If BARC was to switch to clock half-hours to measure and report, for currency, and publish a data dump of the minute-level report periodically (say every quarter), it would achieve two objectives, both highly desirable: Channels would stop trying to salami-slice their start and finish, and adhere to the discipline of running programming to, and by, the clock. Content producers would be able to focus on their story ideas in larger chunks, which would substantially ease the relentless pressure for incessant sensationalism and shrillness.
Secondly, the sample size of panel homes by deploying additional number of BAR-o-Meters should be increased, as a larger sample size would address the problem of panel tampering. In fact, the sample size can be increased by the adoption of the Return Path Data (RPD) technology. The RPD technology can allow stakeholders to leapfrog into gaining viewing insights from millions of households instead of collecting data from just hundreds or a few thousand households. Having access to this data would give an accurate measure of subscribers’ viewing behaviour.
Building Credibility through Transparency
Lastly, one of the biggest concerns with regard to the measurement system in India has been BARC’s lack of transparency. The measurement body has an outlier policy in place which keeps a check on any unjustified spike in the viewership of a channel. However, this policy is confidential and there is no transparency on how it rationalises viewership data. Similarly, raw data & additional data should ideally be made available to the broadcasters, when needed – to help determine any changes made in weightage. To ensure data security, anatomization of data should be conducted in a way that no one has access to the details on how and which boxes are used to obtain data.
News channels play a huge role in contributing to the social, economic, and political development of citizens in any country in the world. They are the key functionaries of a healthy democracy and their role in good governance is essential to societal development. Therefore, amending the measurement system will surely bring back the much-needed sanity on news channels and credibility in news ratings.
While the challenges are several fold and implementation is easier said than done; if these issues are not addressed sooner, it can severely impact the broadcast industry in the long term.
The author is CEO of ABP Network. Views expressed are personal.