There is a great irony in the cacophonous competitiveness of our purveyors of English News. They claim to be champions, defenders and purveyors of the unvarnished truth
All English news channels claim to be purveyors of the unvarnished truth. But when they claim supremacy, leadership and victory in the ‘Ratings Race’ they are not living up to that claim
02:20 IST, August 6, 2012. Or 21:50 UK Summer Time, August 5, 2012. The London Olympics are at their crescendo as the elite of athletes, the eight fastest runners on the planet make their way to the starting blocks for the men’s 100 metres finals. There’s America’s fastest man, Justin Gatlin there. Asafa Powell, a previous world record holder strides up. As does Yohan Blake, a winner at the World Championship. Then the camera pans to the tall, powerful figure in a fluorescent yellow and green kit, Jamaica proudly emblazoned across it. Usain. Lightning. The Bolt has arrived and the thousands in the stadium and a billion across the globe catch their collective breath. “Let us complete the formalities, shall we?” his imperious demeanour seems to say. And the deafening roar that follows the initial hush is nothing less, nothing else, than a salute to the king.
You know how this ends. Less than 10 seconds later, Bolt won the fastest 100 m ever run with all three medalists coming in inside 9.8. His time of 9.63 set a new Olympics record. That was a race. There was a winner, someone who came in second and third and so on. There could be no ambiguity on this. If you have been reading the advertisements by English News Channels you would begin to imagine that television ratings are somehow like that. Someone wins and everyone else loses. Of course, what makes it terribly enigmatic is that ALL the channels announce victory with various degrees of bombast. Incomprehensible? Rightly so. Because it is nonsense. Here is the myth and facts about TV ratings.
1. A race result is deterministic. A television rating is probabilistic.
Once Bolt breasted the tape in that 100 metres dash, there was no ambiguity left about who had won. Thanks to extraordinarily sensitive and precise timing technologies, even the subsequent sequence of arrivals was determined exactly. The situation for television measurement, however, does not entail measuring what 8 individuals did. BARC, the new joint industry body in charge of television measurement in India, has declared its vision as measuring “What India Watches”. Best estimates available point to over 155 million television homes in India at this time. There is no technology available now or in the foreseeable future that can monitor what all of those homes, accounting for well over 600 million viewers, are tuned into. The only way to assess is by using techniques of Statistical Sampling. In its first pass, BARC is setting up a panel of 20,000 carefully selected homes across urban and rural India that will stand in for the in-home TV viewing population. That is just over 1 home in 10,000. Mumbai and Delhi, with over 10 million people, or about 2 million TV homes each would have no more than 200 homes representing them. For a variety of reasons, the actual panel size is considerably larger but by multiples, not orders of magnitude. Now imagine the challenge of capturing the endless sociocultural and economic diversity of these megacities with just a few hundred homes to measure them. Thankfully, statistical methods enable us to exactly quantify the error of estimate in such samples.
Let us say that a channel is actually viewed by 1% of Mumbai’s population or 100,000 individuals. If we want to estimate this number with an accuracy of ±0.5% and be at least 90% sure that our estimate is correct, we would need a sample of only 1072 individuals. Required sample size numbers rise rapidly as viewership drops below 1%. A 0.5% viewed channel to be measured with an accuracy of ±0.25% would demand a sample of 2,154 individuals.
2. Errors of estimation are inbuilt into every rating. In a strict sense, the estimate provided is the midpoint of a range and the actual quantity could lie anywhere in that range. Let us look at the 1% example again. Assume that there are two channels, both enjoying actual viewership across the Mumbai population of 1%. A week’s data indicates Channel A at 0.7% and Channel B at 1.3%. As you will now notice, both these numbers are within the range of 0.5%-1.5% that we had chosen as acceptable to our exercise. Unfortunately, however, the optical presentation would suggest that Channel B is 86% more popular.
3. The whole point of growth in consumer choice is that products are designed to best meet the requirements of a specific segment of the population. You may be too young to actually have any memories of Ramayana and Mahabharata of Doordarshan but you would definitely have heard stories from older members of your family of how the streets were empty when they went on air. Those were the years of no choice. Today, even if it is a culinary show you want to watch, you have the choice of Sanjeev Kapoor, Anthony Bourdain, Nigella Lawson, Gordon Ramsay and the Masterchef trio from Australia (although if Nigella is on air, why you would want to watch anybody or anything else beats me). We now seek out channels and programmes like we seek out shampoos for our hair or cars. It doesn’t matter how popular they are with the world at large. What matters is as to how well they fit into our scheme of things. If a television station believes that I could be persuaded to change my preference merely because it is more popular, it shows either arrogance or lack of understanding.
4. Television measurement is of most critical consequence to two constituencies. Content creators use it to decide whom they wish to address their product to and to evaluate whether it is actually reaching the chosen segment. Advertisers use measurement to choose media inventory on which to place their commercials. This is also about the correspondence between the segment they wish to reach and how effectively and efficiently a particular channel is able to achieve it. A Hindi Entertainment channel may have 1,000 times the viewers of a Malayalam News channel but if you are a travel agent in Thrissur, that fact would scarcely impact your choice.
There is a great irony in the cacophonous competitiveness of our purveyors of English News. They claim to be champions, defenders and purveyors of the unvarnished truth. But when they claim supremacy, leadership and victory in the ‘Ratings Race’ they are not living up that claim.
(Paritosh Joshi runs Provocateur Advisory, an independent Media & Communications consultancy alongside mentoring a number of startups in the e-tail and technology sectors. Until April 2012, he was CEO of STAR CJ Network India Pvt Ltd. Mr Joshi chairs the Technical Committee for the Indian Readership Survey (IRS), is a member of the Technical Committee for the Broadcast Audience Research Council (BARC) and sits on the Board of the Media Research Users Council (MRUC).)