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Faulty TV audience ratings: Need for independent agency was mooted way back in 2002

Dr PS Deodhar, who was the chairman of the Research Advisory Committee of the ministry of information and broadcasting in 2002, had emphasised that a media industry owned and government sponsored TV Media Rating Organisation need to be created. This becomes relevant in the view of the TAM ratings scandal that has grabbed the headlines now

 
Of late, the Indian television and advertising world has been rocked with a scandal amidst allegations that TAM rigged television ratings (check here for more information). The $1.3 billion lawsuit by NDTV against TAM has exposed the faulty metrics, which directs advertising money to TV channels. This is not surprising because way back in 2002, Dr PS Deodhar, then chairman of the Research Advisory Committee of the ministry of information and broadcasting, had emphasised that a media industry owned and government sponsored TV Media Rating Organisation need to be created. 
 
Dr Deodhar had expressed the fear since July 2002, after TAM and INTAM got merged, that the data provided by them would be unreliable due to the monopolistic nature. There was no independent, third-party competitor nor was there a government-sponsored entity to balance TAM’s clout.
 
At that time, the Indian Broadcasting Foundation (IBF) had set up a committee comprising executives from Star, Sony Entertainment Television (SET), Zee Network, Eenadu, Sun TV and Doordarshan, to investigate the issue of an independent rating system, after the ratings were leaked in the public domain. The move to set up the committee assumed significance in the light of the fact that one of the IBF members had then demanded suspension of the publication of TAM and INTAM ratings till these were revamped.  To probe into how TAM/INTAM lists were leaked broadcasters, under the IBF umbrella, had met TAM and INTAM chiefs in Mumbai. It emerged from the meeting that both TAM and INTAM had agreed to revamp their Peoplemeter panels as soon as possible. In view of this promise, broadcasters and rating agencies decided that there would not be any suspension of the publication of the TAM/INTAM ratings. This is because TRPs are inherent part of the business model of Indian broadcasters and therefore could not be shrugged off.
 
Dr Deodhar had pointed out that the sampling was faulty because the INTAM-TAM sample size for a country like India was too small. With a diverse and populous country like India, the sample was prone to rigging. Moreover, India is a cultural melting pot and therefore a totally different methodology must be adopted to make sense of the Indian market. There was a need to provide more detailed information on specific groups and demographics, given India’s broad cultural diversity and social groups, Dr Deodhar pointed out. In the US, the population was more or less homogeneous, and therefore using a straightforward and smaller sample might help. In India it is far more diverse. Rural women, illiterate population, children and elderly get affected by the television programs differently but the telecasts have a least common denominator having so called a ‘broad appeal’. Therefore, it is particularly important to segregate data into different categories to enable a far more holistic picture of what is being watched, and what can be offered to specific groups of audiences, while at same time advertisers will be able to make better decisions.
 
This was increasingly important to media planners, policy makers, social scientists, etc to enhance decision making abilities. The need of the hour was to provide an independent, regulated platform that looks after the interest of the buyers of media—the consumers, according to Dr Deodhar. 
 
It was believed that TAM had promised to install ‘Peoplemeter’ in many more semi-rural towns including backward areas of Orissa, Bihar, Rajasthan, Kerala, etc to increase the sample size and make it a lot more accurate and include different types of demographics. 
 
By contrast, according to PS Deodhar, Nielsen used three different systems in the US—the Peoplemeter, the set-tuning and diary methods for collecting data. This gave a more holistic view than TAM/INTAM. In US, it had 5,000 households in the national Peoplemeter sample and approximately 20,000 households in the local metered market samples. There were nearly 1.6 million ‘diaries’ edited each year. This might seem sufficient to suit US demographics as the kind of people do not vary much from state to state. Also, no volunteers were accepted for Nielsen’s ratings service. To be statistically accurate it was essential that the sample be the result of random selection. The random nature of the sample ensures that people of all backgrounds and all ages can be included. This ensures neutrality and unbiased data is used.
  
Ultimately, it is the credibility of source offering media research information that is important, and of high reliability—to both buyers and seller of media content—that is the need of the hour. By giving reliable information to foster genuine competition and understand what people watch, sellers of media content would be able to offer buyers at affordable prices. Parents are worried even in a developed country like the US or UK. We, therefore, need to know who watches what, with what effect in relation to the objectives of the broadcaster. Sometimes, children watch inappropriate content. It is pertinent to note that in 1997, according to PS Deodhar, in response to public pressure, the US television industry agreed to devise a system to give parents more information about the TV shows their kids watch.
 
Concerned that the statistical analysis of the viewership rating has a big socio-cultural value for media planning by the country especially for a country where majority can't read written text and depend on TV for information, Dr Deodhar went to the court in 2003 with a plea to direct the government to set up an independent rating agency with broadcasting industry participation. He filed a Public Interest Litigation for this purpose. It was heard and a court decision suggested that he take it up with the government. If the court and the government were a little proactive, tens of thousands of crores would have not have been wasted and Indian TV content would have been a shade better, perhaps.
 

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