If any senior TV journalist tells you that they are shocked to hear that TV ratings could be rigged, they are simply lying. One could call it an open secret, but it is not even that. Way back at the turn of the millennium, one of India’s leading news magazines had done an exposé on how channels were manipulating the system to boost their ratings. Subsequent exposés have repeatedly shown the same thing. If the Mumbai Police’s allegations are true, the modus operandi appears to have remained unchanged over two decades.
How Is TV Viewership Data Collected?
To understand how the system is gamed, we first need to get a sense of how TV viewership data is collected. BARC India (Broadcast Audience Research Council of India) has installed its ratings-meters in 44,000 homes across India. This covers about 1.87 lakh individuals. Out of these about 40,000 homes are regularly monitored. The remaining 10 percent, or 4,000 meters, is needed to rotate the ‘panel’ of sample viewers periodically and replace sample viewers, every now and then. These homes would have about 1.7 lakh individuals living in them.
The ratings-homes are meant to be confidential, so that they can’t be manipulated.
The meters record the viewership patterns of each member of the household and then transmit it to BARC’s servers. Channels have an audio ‘watermark’ embedded in them, to ensure that the meter doesn’t mix up channels when their position is changed by a cable operator. The data is collected for every second, but reported for each minute. The channel which has been watched for the maximum number of seconds in a minute is awarded the entire minute’s viewership.
This continuous ‘survey’ is used to project the viewership pattern of some 197 million TV-owning homes in India, which have a total of 836 million individuals.
So, on an average each active ratings-meter accounts for about 21,000 viewers, and each individual ‘surveyed’ by these meters stands in for about 5,000 actual viewers.
This brings us to the age-old method used to rig this ratings-system.
How Are TRPs Rigged?
The list of homes with meters in them gets leaked very often. ‘Consultants’ of channels scope a few homes and zero-in on the ones that can be bribed. They gift a nice big flat-screen TV to the family, give them a free cable connection, add some cash and tell them to watch whatever they want on this new TV. In exchange, they are asked to keep their original metered-TV set switched on to a channel of the ratings-fixer’s choice, for a long period of time.
You might ask, how can a few meter-homes make a big difference, given that data is being collected from 40,0000 homes?
Let us imagine that a broadcaster manages to ‘fix’ just 50 meter-homes and gets each of the family members to keep their metered-TV set switched on to their channel for 5 hours each day. If it’s a Hindi entertainment channel which originally had a 20 percent market-share, the manipulation will raise its viewership to 21.5 percent. In a tight race, this is enough to move a channel from No.1 from second-place. If this can be sustained for a few months, the impact in terms of revenues can run into hundreds of crores.
Biggest ‘Beneficiary’ Of TRP Rigging?
If the same manipulation – individuals in 50 meter-homes ‘watching’ a particular channel for 5 hours per day – is done for a Hindi news channel, its market share will go up by 30 percent. That is enough to push a channel from fourth position to become the top-ranked Hindi news channel. Again, if this is sustained, annual revenues can easily go up by Rs.50 crore.
The biggest impact will be in genres where the total viewership is low – such as English news.
The same rigging can push a channel from 20 percent market share to 80 percent market share. Just imagine what that would mean. If, earlier all other English news channels were competing for a share of the remaining 80 percent of the pie, now they will compete for just 20 percent.
The channel which has rigged the ratings will appear to be invincible.
In fact, significant results can be achieved by channels by just rigging 10 such meter-homes. If the relevant channel is left switched on for 5 hours, then a Hindi news channel with 20 percent market share can go up by 1.5 percent – enough to raise it from No. 2 to No. 1. If an English news channel did the same kind of rigging in 10 meter-homes, its market share can go up from 20 percent to 50 percent. Just five meter-homes!
Advertisers Are Aware Of Numbers Manipulation – But Can’t Help But Go With The Data
It is understandable why channels would be tempted to give into these unethical practices. Most channels are entirely dependent on advertising revenues to run their expenses. A small change in market share can change the fortunes of a news channel.
Ratings, however, are not meant for journalists to boast about. They are meant for advertisers to plan their ad-campaigns.
Advertisers need data to gauge what kind of viewer watches which channel, or even which show. So, if they have a product aimed at women above a certain age, they will try to place their ads on a channel which has the highest viewership amongst women of that age group. This is the best way to target advertisement at specific consumer segments, on a mass platform like television.
That is why advertisers look for two things: first the number of viewers a channel reaches and second, how long it holds on to an average viewer.
A channel’s reach determines how many people will get to watch an ad, and the time spent by viewers will determine how many times they will watch that ad. It is a no-brainer then, that advertisers will choose channels that have higher reach and are watched for longer.
Even though advertisers know that the numbers are manipulated, they have no option but to go with whatever data they have.
‘Media-buyers’ who buy ad-space on channels, on behalf of advertising agencies, also have to justify their decisions. And nothing works as a better justification than an excel sheet with ratings data on it, however spurious it might be.
This is especially important during economic slow-downs, when things aren’t selling. Imagine that a company gives a contract to an ad agency to make a TV commercial for them. Everyone likes it. The commercial is then placed through a media-buyer in the channels with the highest ratings. But the product doesn’t sell. The company complains that the ads didn’t reach enough people. The ad-agency and media buyers answer with ratings ‘data’ to prove that the best channels were chosen, so the product itself must be bad, that no one is buying it. It is a perfect way for channels, media buyers and advertisers to protect each other’s interests.
Real Issue: Impact Of Manipulation Of Ratings On News Agenda
The real issue, however, is the impact that the manipulation of ratings has, in terms of setting the news agenda.
If a particular news story appears to have high viewership, because of the manipulation of a few rating-meters, every channel will begin to follow that story. Viewers will get inundated with that story and the supply will create an artificial demand.
The exact reverse will happen if a channel that asks questions is blocked in crucial geographies, especially where there are a cluster of meters. That channel will appear to have no viewership in meter-homes, even if it is being watched in the rest of the country. The stories it broadcasts will appear to be of low viewer-interest. The channel will stop getting advertising and will be forced to reduce its expenditure on newsgathering.
So, manipulating ratings by fixing meters, not only has serious financial consequences for channels – strengthening some and weakening others – but it also is a great way to manipulate the news-cycle. It is a perfect method to turn journalists into compliant courtiers.
(The author was Senior Managing Editor, NDTV India & NDTV Profit. He now runs the independent YouTube channel ‘Desi Democracy’. He tweets @AunindyoC. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)