Tuning In

Another sensational high profile suicide or murder?

Or is it yet another ghastly rape?

Or, could it be the discovery of another wrongdoing by Bollywood, like being involved in making movies that people like?

Of course, the unmasking of another attempt at influencing the presidential elections in the US cannot be ruled out either.  

These were the thoughts uppermost in my mind as I sat down and dug my eyes into the newspaper report headlined “Cops summon three over TRP scam.”

“At least three channels have manipulated TRPs,” the article quoted the Mumbai Police Commissioner, confirming my worst fears. Concerns for the law and order situation started running through my mind, painting dire doomsday images. Who cares about whether Rhea procured drugs or not, when channels are busy manipulating TRPs. “There is a need for further understanding the situation,” the same article also quoted Karti Chidambaram, a Congress MP. Challenge that for a sentence laden with meaning, if you can.

I made some surprising discoveries.

There are a few businesses in the, well, for want of a better alternative, business, of TV programming. In an economy that operates on the principles of a free market? Can you believe it?

These businesses, being businesses, try to increase revenue and keep costs under control so that their investors can generate handsome returns. Ever heard anything as preposterous?

These private businesses have collaborated to form a body known as BARC, short for Broadcast Audience Research Council, which also comprises of advertisers, ad agencies and broadcasting companies. BARC is a private body, classified as non-government company. One of the things BARC does is collect TRPs, short for Television Rating Points, a proxy for popularity of different programmes based on time spent watching them. This is done through installation of measuring devices in 40000 TVs. 40000 installed devices that represent 200 million households and 800 million individuals. Isn’t Statistics a life saver? Or a money saver? Depending on whether you are an individual or a business organisation.

These businesses, the ones creating programmes for TV, let’s call them channels, vie for an advertising (on TV) pie that is estimated at about INR 300 billion (USD 4 billion) annually. As the potential gains are substantial, it has always made sense for everyone involved to keep the 40000 households off the gravy train. The 40000 households that, by sharing their consumption data, make these revenues possible for TV channels, and enable spenders to believe they are doing it scientifically.  

Channels are interested in high TRP ratings as that will lead to more advertising revenue. It has been argued that they have offered financial incentives to participating households to tune in to certain channels. It seems offering financial incentives is a crime. I am wondering if I should cancel the Smartphone I ordered on Amazon yesterday. Mr. Bezos could get into trouble for offering a financial incentive. It was at a handsome discount. I am in two minds.

The spenders, or businesses who spend on advertising on TV, are represented on BARC, and are also private businesses who don’t have to worry about the financial situation of farmers in rural India, or hardships faced by migrant workers during the onset of the pandemic. They have not been forced to take decisions based on BARC data. They choose to. Hence, it must be an issue of national importance that ratings have been manipulated.

It appears that the government also bases its ad spend decisions on TRP ratings. One can never be sure, but it is believed that they were also not forced to. They could follow the established practice of ‘positive mentions’ of the government by a channel to allocate their advertising spend. Of course, it helps if the two are the same.

Perhaps the channels who are a part of BARC have signed a specific clause to not influence behaviour through financial incentives. Always a great idea to insert terms calling for unnatural behaviour into commercial contracts so that taxpayer money can be spent in unravelling them. And it must be treated as a crime, so that our perpetually understaffed and overworked police force can get involved, as soon as they are done checking on Rhea’s drug usage.

Just as well, though. Can you imagine the pandemonium it could unleash if left unchecked? Viewers having to watch a commercial for Dove soap instead of the rightful Pears during their daily dose of the ‘saas-bahu’ ‘soap.’ Or, being forced to watch a Trivago commercial during the news break when it should have been Makemytrip. Or, even worse, being exposed only to Samsung phones during IPL cricket matches. The common man needs to be protected.

So, it was for a good cause. I calmed down somewhat.

And, of course, it is scientifically justified. After all, science, and statistics, have helped in designing the system in a way that a few rogue households can poison the entire data. It is science, after all, which mandates that if more than 40000 devices are installed, the cost will go up and profit down. And science again which decides that the participating households should not be equitably compensated.

Such being the case, who can argue with the government getting involved.

I am looking forward to some honest and fair news coverage on the channels being probed for the TRP scam.

31 thoughts on “Tuning In

  1. The problems with TV ratings and their concomitant danger of manipulation appear to be universal. I hate TV commercials and therefore after a long but successful battle to get out of a satellite service contract I am free to watch by choice movies and documentaries on various internet services. Of course, I could be running the risk of being charged with criminal activities for having withdrawn from the data manipulation scam. Haha!

  2. What a shock! How could the righteous rulers of TV stations be accused of such manipulation. It is because of private citizens casting aspersions that the prices are so high everywhere. I am sure you can not be telling the true story. Lift your game Mr Mithal and pray to whichever god you wish that international cricket will never succumb to such naughtiness.

  3. Hehee. And–thank goodness!–we now have social media helping us decide what we should and shouldn’t read, at least here in America. They protect us from stories they deem unfit. Wait–didn’t our Constitution protect against that? Hmm…

  4. Of course it’s a matter of national importance. Even though I don’t watch TV (Netflix and Amazon prime that don’t have ads running at set times), everyone knows that for a lot of products, most of their cost comes from advertising, not labor or source materials – so if, say, Dove soap spends more money to advertise to an artificially inflated audience, I end up paying more for Dove soap in the store.

    • You may have nailed the issue. I can almost visualise the slogans for the next elections. “If you want Dove, give us your Love,” by one party and “Bring them (the other parties) to tears, we assure you Pears’ by another. It could be the biggest elections in years.

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