TV ratings to become more transparent

tv raitingTelevision ratings, that determine how the Rs39,000 crore ($7 billion) advertising pie is shared among channels, will soon have independent oversight to insulate it from charges of manipulation and bias.

Television Audience Measurement Media Research (TAM), which drives this multi-billion dollar kitty with what is called television rating points (TRP), will soon have a “Transparency Panel”, an external ombudsman that is claimed to be the first anywhere in the world.

M. Damodaran, former chief of the Securities Exchange Board of India (SEBI), will chair the six-member Transparency Panel. Also on board are Chintamani Rao, former chief of Times Global Broadcasting, Giovanni Fabris, international media director for McDonald’s, Sheila Byfield, global head of research at Mindshare, Ivor Millman of the Broadcasters Audience Research Board in the UK, and Praveen Tripathi of Magic9 Media.

“We will go completely naked before this group of globally-recognized ombudsmen. We will let them know everything about TAM that there is to know,” said one source privy to the developments, who requested anonymity since he was not authorised to speak to the media. This fact was confirmed by two other sources.

“In return, they will offer a balanced and abiding verdict, wherever TV broadcasters have a complaint with our ratings,” the source said, adding a formal announcement is expected ahead of the July meeting of Transparency Panel in New Delhi.

India’s TV market has 153 million households. Advertising gravitates towards channels which show higher TAM ratings. This triggers grudges among those who fetch lower ratings, typically public broadcaster Doordarshan (DD). Also, NDTV, a leading Indian private broadcaster, has dragged TAM to a US court, citing ethical transgressions and fuzziness.

Two “below-the-radar” preparatory meetings of the Transparency Panel were held in December and April-May. Here, the ombudsmen were exposed to the agency’s nerve centre in Baroda and the methodology that drives the 9,450 rating meters TAM claims to have installed across various geographies in India.

TAM meters are paid for by subscription from industry. While every laggard channel wants more meters to capture a larger sample size, no one, including the incumbent leaders, want to pay for the enhanced research cost. After much haggling, 650 more meters will be installed in India’s six metro markets by year-end, taking the total number past 10,000.

A test case before the Transparency Panel is protest from broadcasters that small towns in Haryana, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Rajasthan have been added to the metering since January. TAM’s decision to expand to these towns has pulled down aggregate ratings, because power shutdowns of 10-12 hours a day have shrunk the viewing universe.

In a related development, a police officer has been recruited for vigilance duties for the first time. His mandate is to clear roadblocks being faced in maintaining the integrity of TAM meters. The research agency’s entry into smaller towns can change the game somewhat for DD.

Here, DD’s viewership exists but because the audiences aren’t metered, the national broadcaster’s viewership isn’t reflecting in the national aggregate. But incumbent cable operators have been blocking these installations. Despite TAM invocations, the Union Information and Broadcasting Ministry has proved helpless in getting local deputy commissioners to step in.

Two of “the big four” global audit firms are also being roped in to audit the TAM process. On the cards is deeper separation of the Transparency Panel from TAM, including the audit firms providing them independent e-mail identities. “Also, we’ll be happy if the sitting fee due to the Damodaran panel is paid by industry,” an official said.

TAM is a venture between Nielsen (India) and Kantar Market Research. Appointed by the Indian Society of Advertisers, the Indian Broadcast Foundation and the Advertising Agencies Association of India in 1998, its mandate is to be the central industry provider of media and consumer insights to advertisers and marketers, media owners, media agencies and the academia.

The Telegom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) had on April 17 issued a consultation paper on the establishment of an accreditation mechanism for television rating agencies as also the methodology of audience measurement. The last date for suggestions stands extended to May 23. May 30 is the cut-off for counter comments. The watchdog may find Transparency Panel a useful mechanism to rely on.