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Why India’s News Channels Lack Editorial Talent at the Top Level

Nobody is willing to take up the editor’s seat at most news channels for fear of the weekly guillotine called TRPs.

5 min read
Why India’s News Channels Lack Editorial Talent at the Top Level
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Stung by what was one of the major viewership grabs of 2020—what some call the TRP scam—government of India created a 4-member committee to assess the existing television rating system in India. This triggered a flash of memory where I had a conversation, a few months back with one of my friends, an editor with prominent news media house in India.

To much of my eye-popping and slow clap moments, I was given to understand there is a severe talent crunch at top for many respectable media outlets (here I am talking mostly about news), the reason being a hydra-headed monster called TRPs or television rating points.

What I came to know was nobody is willing to take up the editor’s seat at most news channels for fear of the weekly guillotine called TV ratings. In a moment of almost crystal ball gazing, this conversation took place a few days before the police FIRs and subsequent reality television playing out of newsrooms and prisons.


News Channels, Ratings, and Advertising

Coming back to the issue of television ratings, which is the holy grail of any broadcasters’ journey. This data, when thoroughly analysed, indicates a channel’s claim to number one status on a particular time band and also during the cyclical broadcast cycle or rundown.

The data helps advertisers, broadcasters and advertising agencies decide on the “right program and hence advertisement slot mix” and pretty much directly, defines the fate of thousands of talents involved in the broadcasting industry while shaping ‘collective consciousness’ of millions of viewers of the content.

The broadcasting—only referring to what we essentially watch on television sets and not necessarily streamed—constitutes a major viewership chunk and can be broadly divided into news and entertainment genres. While we all have kept ourselves entertained with “Rasode mein kaun tha” memes in the Covid peaking gloomy months, it is news or perhaps newspersons which has really made it to the headlines.

At this point take a break and fast track to a world where we understand that all our conscious/subconscious decisions are influenced/enhanced digitally. In this world, running almost on autopilot algorithms it is said “if you are not paying for it, you are the commodity”. Television news, as a genre as it exists in India, is mostly free therefore it is dependent on advertisers for its revenues, who, put in money based TRPs of a show or news anchor.


TRP Numbers Dictate Editorial Choices

TRP numbers pretty much sums up the editorial choice—based on advertiser—on what any TV news viewer watches. This weekly set of numbers defines the stars and losers and decides (to a large extent) how public opinion is shaped in the long run based on their channel of choice.

The question, therefore, is if viewers aren’t paying for their TV news content, do they have the right of choice? Second, the question of TRP as a barometer of popularity at the cost of accuracy and much needed objectivity—essential first for news coverage— especially in wake of new technologically advanced access to news content needs to be raised.

The telecom regulator TRAI, which double hats as broadcast regulator, came up with a 68-page consultation paper on review of television audience measurement and ratings in India in 2018. Some of the questions raised in the consultation paper were regarding the following:

  • BARC’s ( Broadcast Audience research council) transparency and neutrality with regards TV ratings,
  • need for creation of multiple rating agencies for TV,
  • sample size of TV ratings meters installed in households as being truly representative of the entire broadcast audience in the country,
  • tampering of rating panels and principles of privacy involved while collecting information from households, and
  • granularity of information retrieved by television audience measurement agency.

All of these questions, and more importantly the 23 bodies and individuals providing responses to this consultative process, open a new insight into the ways of working within this industry.


How TV Channels Can Easily Game TRPs

To take an example, panel size is the number of homes, where the audience measurement device is placed based on certain surveys. It is understood that the sample is representative of age, socio-economic class, gender, working status, delivery platforms and geographical coverage—both urban and rural markets—for a country as vast and diverse such as India.

Here, the Simpson’s Paradox (statistical analogy) kicks in, where just eight households in Mumbai can have a disproportionate say on the editorial style and content choice for all English TV news viewers across the country. The magic in math of this skewed TRP is explained by another friend from TV news world.

BARC has so far managed to have a household sample size of under 45,000 across the country, out of which nearly 2000 are in Mumbai alone.

Now, English Television news, categorized as niche, having a reach of 0.4% translates to just eight homes in Mumbai watching approximately 2 minutes of English news per day!

The questions regarding choice of households—their level of education, income bracket etc—can be mostly treated as static noise. That’s where the issues regarding tampering with panels and therefore neutrality of content and audience choices kicks in.


Can There be An Alternative to TRPs?

The government has done right with appointment of a committee whose terms of reference include the following:

  • a study of past recommendations made by various forums on the subject of television ratings,
  • suggest steps for enhancing competition in the sector, and
  • review of the presently notified guidelines to see if the intended purpose(s) of issuing the guidelines have stood the test of time and has met needs of various stakeholders involve.

The lacunae, if any, shall be ‘specially addressed’ by this committee. The committee is nearly coming to an end of its two-month term in January this year and it is time to readjust the algorithms of TRPS.

The opinion makers or influencers of today—to a large extent—are technology aided and worldviews are increasingly getting shaped via smart codes. We are given to understand that almost all human activities ever since they signed up their first email account or gave their thumb impression on a phone screen, can be neatly put in folders and uploaded on a giant cloud for posterity.

In this era of Digitech Big Brother, is an almost analogous small size of representative sample for TV ratings meters still valid or do we need to completely digitise the TV ratings systems?

The answers to all of these—and perhaps solution to talent paucity at top—is that TV rating systems in India need a technological overhaul, which is more future ready, and perhaps that’s an issue on which all broadcasters, content creators, regulators and advertisers need to have a consensus.

(Kumar Deep Banerjee is Country Manager, ITI. He tweets at @kumar_deep. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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