BARC can infuse transparency into the television rating system. But it first needs to expand its stakeholder base
Currently, TAM and Audience Measurement and Analytics (aMap) are the two organizations providing this service in the broadcasting sector. TAM’s data is based solely on people meters installed in select sample homes across some of the larger cities. They provide weekly estimates of who’s watching what programme based on the record of audience preferences in these households. The more recent entrant, aMap, provides similar estimates of audience preferences on a daily basis, based again on people meters.
Only recently has this measurement been questioned both by broadcasters and other stakeholders, apart from the courts and policymakers. The declining standards in content and increasing “copycat” programming have also signposted the misuse of such inadequate audience measurement systems.
Media researchers and analysts, including CMS, call this the “TRP Trap” and have cautioned against it in a country like ours where there exist wide disparities and varied interests.
Even within the advertising industry, many have felt that any large-scale ongoing media measurement research should be conducted by an industry body that is constituted by the associations of respective media owners, advertisers and advertising agencies to ensure transparency, funding support and sustainability. There were also apprehensions regarding conflict of interest as there was ambiguity of ownership and/or equity interests involving rating organizations, advertising agencies and some broadcasters. In October 1997, the ad industry had come together to form a Joint Industry Body (JIB), but this lacked a formal structure and was unable to strictly implement what it had set out to do.
Most industry professionals maintain that the television rating system is an internal trade practice of measuring advertisements and programme reach to facilitate pricing of advertisements. However, with the increasing volume of trade based on these TRPs and their burgeoning influence on content priorities, even Parliament and the courts have questioned the system.
In response to such concerns, the Broadcast Audience Research Council (BARC) was set up in September 2007 as a forum for self-regulation by broadcasters, advertisers and other industry stakeholders to oversee and control the TV audience measurement system in India. This also implied that rating organizations such as TAM and aMap would be commissioned and supervised by this body. BARC was also the forum that would bring in much-needed transparency with the inclusion of various stakeholders, not just broadcasters and advertisers.
The ministry of information and broadcasting asked the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) to look into the policy and operational issues regarding the audience measurement system being used. The authority’s recommendations, issued in August 2008, encouraged self-regulation and suggested that BARC resolve to improve the accountability of the rating method and widen its membership to include larger stakeholders in the measurement.
In fact, the elaborate Trai report suggested an organizational structure, functions, methodology and mechanism for BARC to be made effective. The regulator, which made the recommendations after exhaustive consultations, stressed that operational and ethical standards needed to be maintained while highlighting the importance of disclosure norms inthis measurement process.
The Indian Broadcasting Foundation (IBF), a broadcasters’ lobby group, needs to be credited for BARC registering itself as a not-for-profit company under section 25 of the Companies Act. IBF had in fact taken the lead in initiating BARC along with the Advertising Agencies Association of India and the Indian Society of Advertisers.
However, this application for registration submitted last month along with its enclosed memorandum and articles of association doesn’t appear to be in sync with the need for BARC to bring more stakeholders into the current opaque measurement system. The memorandum only has IBF and its members as stakeholders.
Besides this, public representation—even through the ministry of information and broadcasting, or through Prasar Bharati (which runs Doordarshan), or even the government advertiser, Directorate of Advertising and Visual Publicity—has been excluded from this forum. Ethical standards, transparency clauses and disclosure norms are also not clearly elaborated on in the application submitted to the Registrar of Companies.
Prasar Bharti’s exclusion is an especially glaring omission—apart from being a member of IBF, it is the largest broadcaster in the country and has been one of the key casualties of the current TRP system. By keeping out these agencies and making no other provision for wider stakeholder participation, the memorandum represents just another lobbying opportunity for private broadcasters.
The reluctance to involve officials of the ministry of information and broadcasting and other representative bodies in BARC has forced the ministry to set up another TRP review committee to inquire into the system’s lacunae and suggest alternative methods of measurement applicable in our broadcasting ecology.
Admittedly, a forum such as BARC is challenging to initiate; yet it is an opportunity to set right the course of our broadcast sector. It is not only an opportunity to review the overall approach, methodology and systems but also address concerns such as the frequency, coverage, rigour and usability of such measurement systems.
Only time will tell whether BARC will be just another impasse or part of the solution, bringing in the required transparency, credibility and accountability in the broadcasting sector.
PN Vasanti is director of New Delhi-based multidisciplinary research organization Centre for Media Studies (CMS). She also heads the CMS Academy of Communication and Convergence Studies.
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