NBA versus BARC: Republic TV has triggered a new ratings war

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newslaundry | May 19, 2017 | 22:51 IST

There hasn’t been a day since Republic TV’s launch when it’s not made news or created some sort of a buzz. Whether it was the channel’s editor-in-chief Arnab Goswami’s opening monologue or his style of hyper-partisan TV news journalism or what seems to be the start of a legal tussle with Times Now.

This week, News Broadcasting Association’s (NBA) complaint against the channel for violating Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) ruling kept Republic TV in focus.

Not to be deterred by the negative spotlight owing to NBA’s allegations of “dual broadcasting”, “India’s only independent news venture” went into a celebratory mode on Thursday when Broadcast Audience Research Council (BARC) released the recent ratings.

BARC data for Week 19 (May 6 to May 12) shows Republic TV leading all other channels in the English news genre, garnering almost double the impressions (all India, males aged 22 and above) than its closest competitor Times Now.Screen-Shot-2017-05-18-at-1.05.07-PM

Soon after the numbers were released, other English news channels represented by NBA made it clear they would not take this lying down.

The private body, comprising 23 private news broadcasters like India Today, Times Now, NDTV, Zee News, India TV and others believes that Republic TV’s ratings are “inflated and corrupt” owing to the channel broadcasting on multiple frequencies — which means it was listing itself on multiple channel numbers across different genres on various cable networks.

NBA Secretary General Annie Joseph wrote a letter to BARC Chief Executive Officer Partho Dasgupta, saying, “Given your indifference to the serious situation at hand [Republic TV’s dual broadcast], we are left with no option but to advice some of our aggrieved members to opt out of the BARC’s watermarking system with immediate effect until there is appropriate redressal of our grievance. We hope good sense prevails and urgent corrective action is taken by BARC.”

NBA’s decision comes after a letter it wrote to BARC on May 17, asking the ratings council to not publish the Week 19 ratings until Republic TV stopped broadcasting on multiple frequencies.

Newslaundry reached out to Joseph and NBA chairman Ashish Bagga to know details on NBA’s move to boycott BARC but was unable to elicit a response.

While many channels flout dual frequency norms, the scale at which Republic TV was doing it was almost threefold (refer to this story) in comparison to other channels.

While Times Group Managing Director and CEO, MK Anand, is yet to respond to Newslaundry, sources from Times Now confirmed that the channel had pulled out of the ratings system. Anand had, in fact, held a townhall with Times Now employees informing them of this move citing “irregularities” in the rating system as the reason.

NDTV’s editorial director and anchor Sonia Singh confirmed that the channel had joined other news channels and pulled out of BARC. Speaking to Newslaundry, she said that the channel has had issues with the BARC in the past but this particular issue needed to be addressed and corrective action be taken.

Newslaundry also sent an email to BARC’s CEO requesting comments on the developments. Although Dasgupta did not respond to the email, a spokesperson for BARC wrote back saying that dual broadcasting is a “common distribution strategy” among various TV channels, particularly news broadcasters. “BARC India neither monitors channel placements across the various DTH platforms/cable head-ends in the country, nor does it have the mandate to do so,” the spokesperson added. “These issues should be sorted among broadcasters themselves rather than dragging BARC India into these,” he said.

At this point, it is crucial to be acquainted with the process employed by BARC to collect the viewership data. BARC installs BAR-O-meters in panel homes, a total of 22,000 across the country, selected after extensive surveying. These panel homes span rural and urban areas and belong to different economic sections.

The meters pick up unique audio watermarks (inaudible to human ears) embedded in the programming by broadcasters, which helps BARC identify which channel is being played on TV at any time and the duration for which it stays on the screen.

While the BAR-O-meter records which channel is being watched, a separate hand-held remote control unit is also provided to homes. The remote control unit is equipped with buttons that are assigned to each member of the home, which helps BARC know which family member is viewing which channel. The raw data is then processed and provided to BARC subscribers.

When a channel is being broadcast on two different frequencies, the probability of that channel being played increases; consequentially, the probability of the BAR-O-meter picking up that channel’s watermark also increases. Theoretically, thus, dual local channel numbers (LCNs) can increase ratings for a channel.

According to Chrome Data Analytics and Media, the objective of dual LCN could be to monetise the simplest law of probability on the ratings. For example, if you were to visit a supermarket, higher visibility of a product leads to impulse buying. Similarly, the channel with higher availability increases the chances of higher visibility, which eventually escalates viewership.

“Whether it is ethical or unethical is a call that should be taken by the regulators. It is beyond our purview. Looking at the larger picture, I probably would say it is not the best thing to do because if one channel opts for dual/multiple LCNs, the others are compelled to follow it to safeguard their numbers, consequently causing the spiralling effect on the carriage fees.” said Pankaj Krishna, Founder & CEO, Chrome Data Analytics & Media.

However, the key question is to what extent did dual LCN help Republic TV secure its massive ratings?

BARC has clarified in its response that ratings for dual or multiple LCNs “gets aggregated and reported as a single channel and not multiple channels”. “In the past, we have measured multiple LCN instances of channels as per our policy, and reported them as one channel and the same principle has been applied to our data released yesterday,” the spokesperson wrote.

Media specialist and writer Vanita Kohli Khandekar said that while dual LCN do impact ratings by virtue of increasing the “chances of sampling” the channel, to prove that Republic TV’s massive viewership is due to dual LCN (as the aggrieved channels have claimed) one needs to know the total number of networks the channel is on. “If 75 per cent of the networks they [Republic TV] are on are dual frequency, then obviously,” she replied, when asked if the channels’ ratings can be attributed to dual LCN.

Even as legacy channels complain of skewed figures, they have another worry to consider. In the absence of ratings, advertisers may soon begin jumping ship. Many advertisers, a senior BARC official said, have already indicated that they don’t want their ads placed on channels that don’t have ratings.

Kohli Khandekar, however, dismissed fears of advertisers pulling the plug, saying that advertising on news channels “is bought on trends over a period of time”, usually on a quarterly basis. “For six months, the channels will be fine and so will the advertisers,” she told Newslaundry. “It’s just brinksmanship,” she added.

However, what’s noteworthy here is the fact that the viewership data and the dual broadcast has only bothered English news channels. Newslaundry had earlier pointed out that many Hindi news channels were also present on dual frequencies on many distribution networks. But the fact that only English news channels moved ahead to fight this “malpractice” makes one thing certain: that Goswami’s Republic TV and its numbers have shaken the news broadcast industry.

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