Companies & Sectors
NDTV Vs WPP: A battle for Public Opinion

WPP has hit back at NDTV’s allegation that TAM ratings are flawed with a cleverly planned counter-attack. Will it now be a battle of wits, strategy and dirty tricks?

After two weeks of silence, the mighty WPP Group has hit back hard at New Delhi Television (NDTV) for its $1.3billion lawsuit against incorrect TAM (Television Audience Measurement) ratings, with chairman Sir Martin Sorrel leading from the front. The crux of NDTV’s lawsuit is the allegation that TAM ratings (controlled by WPP), which are the main basis of deciding advertising spend in India today, can be influenced for a price.

WPP’s statements show that it is no longer a battle about the quality of TAM ratings but a battle of wits and strategy between WPP and NDTV.

The $16 billion WPP group, founded by Sir Martin Sorrel, who is also its CEO, is the largest communication services group in the world with unparalleled reach and access around the world, across all communications segments and sub-segments. India, until recently a fast growing economy, is important to WPP as is evident from Sir Martin’s frequent visits to the country.

NDTV is the David to WPP’s Goliath. It is a glamorous-looking company, whose clout has waned steadily over the years due to editorial controversies, tough competition, increasing media fragmentation, poor finances and miserable share price performance. Yet, its clout is completely disproportionate to its financial muscle (or lack of it) due to powerful political connections, mainly with the ruling Congress-led government and some leaders of the opposition (mainly the Left).

This clout was on display soon after NDTV filed the lawsuit. Media houses, which had refused to join the suit (NDTV sources say they had approached most of them to join hands), unleashed a spate of media reports supporting NDTV’s viewpoint. They were worried that the information & broadcasting ministry would support a move to threaten the market dominance (a monopoly) of TAM ratings.

Through all this, the WPP group remained silent. Those of us who asked Nielsen (India and overseas) for a reaction, were directed to TAM India, which sent this one-liner on 31st July. “TAM India, a 50:50 joint venture between Kantar Media and Nielsen doesn’t comment on any litigation.”

So what has changed a month later? Clearly, WPP had studied NDTV’s lawsuit and decided on a strategy of planned aggression led by Sir Martin himself. And it has really hit hard starting with a press statement timed to hit the global media first, which dismissed NDTV’s action as a “hypothetical lawsuit” that had not even been properly served (although it is posted on the New York Supreme Court website). Secondly, although NDTV’s lawsuit documents admission by Nielsen’s global executives about the TAM’s poor quality, the group aggressively defended the quality of its ratings.

Further, in an interview with Mint on 25th August, Sir Martin savaged NDTV, saying a “two-lawyer firm, ‘which’ specializes in restaurant law” had called WPP and “asked if we would discuss a settlement. I said there is no question of settlement. This whole thing is mischievous, designed to elicit some financial response from us”. He also told Mint that “they (NDTV) are issuing illegitimate proceedings in the US with lawyers working on a contingency basis, where they do not get a fee, but a percentage of the settlement. That is why they rang up”. Expectedly (to us) Sir Martin attacked NDTV’s financial performance by pointing out that its “market cap has fallen from $800 million to $60 million”. He ended by saying that NDTV’s PR campaign had hurt the reputation of WPP and TAM and that is why WPP was considering a defamation suit.

Based on my conversations with NDTV sources, it seems safe to say that they have been blind-sided by Sir Martin’s aggressive posturing. There is some talk about NDTV’s lawyers, suing Sir Martin in New York for defamation. But what happens next in India? NDTV has responded to the ‘hypothetical’ charge by providing details of an acknowledgement by Kantar Media Research about being served, and WPP has since modified its stance to claim it wasn’t “properly served” a notice of the lawsuit.

It will be interesting to watch. Soon after NDTV filed its suit, a spate of broadcasters came out in support of its charges of corruption and low sample size. Some, like the Zee Group claimed that they too had complained about the tiny sample size and ability to influence the ratings. The media and broadcasters associations were uniformly supportive. The News Broadcasters Association, the apex body of news broadcasters in the country, quickly wrote to the I&B ministry about TAM Media’s TV viewership measurement. The ministry in turn indicated that it would hasten the setting up of the Broadcast Audience Research Council). WPP calls this sudden aggression a “trial by media”.

But nobody probably reckoned that WPP would hit back so hard or take three weeks to do so. Will broadcasters continue to back NDTV? Let’s remember that financially, most broadcasters are as badly off as NDTV. Many remain alive only because of politicians (with an endless supply of funds) who back them, look upon television as a tool to reach their constituents. With WPP controlling the biggest media buying agencies in India, we believe that the media will happily do an about turn. After all, in a situation where most of mainstream media has no qualms about private treaties and paid news deals, why would it want to bite the hand (WPP) that feeds it?

As expected, WPP’s aggressive stand and statement released to the global media lays the ground for challenging NDTV on the jurisdiction issue. Clearly, it does not want the allegations of corruption being heard in a New York court, which may take a more puritanical view of the matter. On the other hand, pushing the matter to an India court is guaranteed to ensure that it will drag for decades. Meanwhile, if TAM improves its rating system (it has already offered a six-point agenda to do so), the eventual verdict will have little meaning.

Until the hearings begin at the New York court, it will be an interesting battle of strategy and maybe even dirty tricks—after all, there is a lot riding on the jurisdiction issue and while courts are not supposed to take cognizance of media reports, everybody knows that it does play a significant role. Our guess is that NDTV failed to realize how well the WPP clout and PR machinery would work on its home territory.



Sandeep Khurana

5 years ago

A small entity if hurt by and forced to take on a giant, may have lawsuit as the most fair option since law should go by merit and not size(practically too, not just ideally). WPP is posturing for now doing some plain bullying but depending on whose case has intrinsic merit, final out of court settlement may be in favor of or against NDTV. Going by evidence against TAM, WPP has reason to worry too. Interesting battle ahead.


5 years ago

NDTV as a PAID MEDIA of CORRUPT & COMMUNAL CONgis have spoiled their Reputation and due BIASED, HALF BAKED TRUTHS & LIES is continuing to loose viewership. MANY OF MY FRIENDS HAVE TOTALLY STOP WATCHING NDTV.

nagesh kini

5 years ago

An extremely fair reporting by Sucheta.
I've two issues
1. What should a fair sample size be?
2. After suing can one go for "settlements" through contingency fee attorneys?

Also where does the Indiabulls vs. Veritas suit stand in the same light - more particularly when other biggies like Reliance, HDFC and Kingfisher have not acted?
Is silence not implied consent?

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Karmayogi Pratisthan the Able Guide

The one source that a Mumbaikar can tap for information on any civic issue or education, is, a website run by Karmayogi Pratisthan 

In the year 2002, after eight years in the US, a young, rank-holding engineer, Gaurang Damani, returned to India, determined to make a difference. He passionately believed that the time had come for India to take its ‘rightful place’ in the world. But it was easier said than done. 
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Dealing with the police also tends to confuse and frighten people. So the website informs people about their rights as well as how to file complaints, what is a first information report (FIR) and the difference between a bailable and non-bailable offence and arrest. The same goes for towing and traffic fines, where Gaurang has filed and won a successful litigation against unauthorised towing of vehicles in Mumbai. 
Another useful segment of deals with the Right to Information (RTI) Act. It provides practical tips (and samples) on how to file successful applications and detailed guidance on the first and second appeal process. Gaurang is himself a successful user of RTI and has even conducted a clinic on RTI for Moneylife Foundation. A special section covers everything you need to know about buying, renting, repairing a flat or re-developing an entire building. In addition to this, the section includes useful links to government websites for details. 
Empowerment through information (including contact details of your corporator, MLA and MP) is Gaurang’s formula to a better society and he is constantly seeking feedback on how to add, improve and update the information provided. How is all this funded? Gaurang says he does not need aggressive fund-raising. The money comes from his own resources and support from friends and well-wishers. Committed volunteers from his locality (the Dadar-Matunga-Wadala-Sion area in Mumbai) invariably join him in various campaigns for blood and organ donations, distribution of schoolbooks or providing medicine to the needy. Donations to Karmayogi Pratishtan are eligible for tax deduction under Section 80G of the Income Tax Act. 
Karmayogi Pratishtan 
11th floor, Avanti Apartments,  
A Wing, Flat No 2, Opp Gandhi Market, 
Flank Road, Sion (East), Mumbai 400022


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