For years NDTV’s accusation that TAM’s audience ratings are rigged, had no takers. So, why is its lawsuit against TAM being taken so seriously now?
“NDTV bells the cat” on TAM ratings, says a Business Today report, quite correctly, about the “problem that has festered between Television Audience Measurement (TAM) ratings and television channels for more than a decade”. The magazine, which is part of a group that also runs popular television channels, goes on to call it a “ticking time bomb”.
Great; but why then is the industry waking up to the seriousness of the rating problem only after NDTV filed a $1.3 billion lawsuit? After all, NDTV has been banging on about TAM ratings since 2004 and has even conducted a well-publicised sting to back up its charges (even while most of its advertisements claimed it was numero uno). I also have it from a senior NDTV insider that they did attempt to get other broadcasters to join their lawsuit, but had to go alone when they failed to get any support.
What the industry clearly didn’t reckon with is NDTV’s phenomenal clout with the Congress-led government. As soon as news about the lawsuit became public, the government and its powerful ministry, which was in slumber until then got hyperactive. Consider the initial reaction.
When the news about the $1.3 billion suit against TAM hit the newswires, there were plenty of sniggers. The ex-chief of a multinational company dripping with sarcasm said, “NDTV should complain about Arnab Goswami stealing their lunch (anchor of Times Now) not TAM”. A committee on false advertising that I am a part of maintained a studious silence when I sought a reaction to the lawsuit. But everybody started singing a different tune just two days later. “I have always been saying that the TAM data is all wrong, fudged” said Zee group founder Subhash Chandra. The CEO of Zee Networks says, “It is clearly emerging that we were provided research data that was questionable”. But that’s not news, is it? Well, the CEO of Sony claims “the rot” has been noticed only now, not in 2004. (quotes have been picked from various media). Why?
Remember, TAM is the only audience measurement system available in India today. So our question remains—why didn’t those who had suspicions or issues with TAM ratings join NDTV’s lawsuit? In fact, if there had been collective action, a lawsuit would not even have been necessary. As Sherlock Holmes said about the dog that didn’t bark… those who didn’t complain had figured out a way to work with the system. And, as I always say, there is nothing more democratic than corrupt person or organisation. All you need to do is to pay for what you want, or pay more than the next guy. In fact, when NDTV first complained, most advertising industry associations had rooted for TAM and backed its ratings.
Why then the sudden rush to discredit TAM after the NDTV lawsuit? In fact, if NDTV simply collates all news reports basing TAM ratings after its lawsuit became public, it could probably collect a billion dollars as an out-of-court settlement from the powerful WPP-Nielsen-VNU-Nielsen-Kantar-JWT India-IMRB-TAM group who have been made party to the suit.
Were broadcasters scared of WPP’s clout to dictate where the advertising rupee goes? Probably. But then, how did WPP’s clout (it owns a string of the largest advertising, rating and media agencies in the world and in India) suddenly diminish when a struggling broadcaster like NDTV decided to sue? Obviously because of signals from the government.
NDTV’s formidable clout with the government has ensured that the ministry of broadcasting has remembered that its own National Media Policy report (by the Sectoral Innovation Council) had called for an alternative to TAM. The information & broadcasting ministry has asked the Indian Broadcasting Foundation, Advertising Agencies Association of India (AAAI) and Indian Society of Advertisers “to speed up the process” of getting the Broadcast Audience Research Council (BARC) operational. BARC was expected to be operational by July 2013, but seems nowhere near meeting that target. In fact the broadcasters association is blaming advertisers associations for slowing down the formation of BARC. And the advertisers are silent.
All this is ironic, because TAM’ s systems allegedly remained untouched by the government because of powerful politicians across party lines who own large chunks of the broadcast media.
NDTV’s charge is that TAM’s sample size for deciding audience preferences is too small. Of the 148 million television-owning homes (126 million have cable) the sample for deciding how the advertising megabucks are spent is a mere 8,000. Just too easy to manipulate! The way TAM works is to have a data-box installed in televisions for the homes that are part of the sample. The way to manipulate the data is to bribe the persons in the sample to tune in to specific programmes or to bribe the TAM employees. Rumour has it that both types of bribes and manipulation were rampant—after all, it is not difficult to reach just enough households to skew the data.
At the least, NDTV wants TAM to stop publishing its corrupted data. TAM is refusing to speak on the issue, but the powerful media group is working overtime to defuse the situation. As things stands, reactions to the lawsuit suggest that the advertising industry and media agencies had collectively underestimated NDTV’s clout. On the other hand, when it comes to genuine viewership, no clout can prevent you and me, the viewers, from reaching for the remote if the content does not interest us. Also, we don’t really need TAM to tell us that NDTV’s viewership and credibility had been hit by many factors. In fact, industry and investment experts invariably point out that the advertising and sponsorship that NDTV commands is completely out of whack with its perceived viewership—whether or not it is measured by a formal rating system. The same is true about its ability to find a series of marquee investors willing to buy its shares at a fancy premium even when its financial performance is terrible.
It’s a strange situation. Almost everybody thinks NDTV gets far more advertising than it deserves; but it now had a chance of working a deal that will give it better ratings or a nice settlement. It remains to be seen what other broadcasters, with lesser political clout will do.