News cycles have never been as febrile as in 2020. Yet, in the middle of pandemic and elections to presidencies and assemblies, our attention is glued to audience measurement.
Audience measurement is not a page-turner. How, then, did it suddenly become a topic of ill-informed fulmination? In a word — scandal. Who doesn’t love a scandal? What’s more, if the story offers a wide cast of characters, from petty scammers to media moguls to India’s biggest advertisers, it is time for drama.
Full disclosure: I have been neck-deep in the field for a long time. I welcome the attention it is getting right now, but I also feel compelled to set the record straight. No, the measurement system isn’t fragile, nor is it falling apart.
An audience measurement system has three tiers. The lowest, least volatile, is furnished by the Census of India. The 2021 Census will get underway in a few months. Audience measurement, indeed all quantitative market research, is currently using projections from previous Census rounds. The second tier, usually called the establishment study, is a pan-India exercise to map critical characteristics of media consumers. Household structure, languages of media consumption, media devices, consumption patterns, age, gender, and so on, are put under a microscope. Studies of readership, ambient media, even radio, stop at this tier, as it produces detailed estimates of reach, frequency and product linkages, to meet most planning requirements.
Television habits are considered more volatile as the medium offers more choice. Thus, the insistence for a third tier to continuously monitor television viewing. This tier uses the third type of research methodology: the continuously monitored panel. Diaries, which were the tracking device until the 1980s were replaced, in the 90s by a TV adjunct device, generically called peoplemeter. Broadcast Audience Research Council (BARC)’s nationwide meter panel, gives media professionals a richly-detailed view of “What India Watches”, BARC’s tagline.
Managing an audience measurement system is a mammoth enterprise. BARC took the best part of a decade to come together, and its weekly television audience report has an enviable reputation for fidelity and precision. But there will always be those who use unsavoury means to get ahead.
What should matter to us is whether systems exist to intercept and checkmate bad actors. There is plenty of good news. Participants in the smaller genres are more likely to attempt malpractices, particularly those dependent entirely on advertising revenues. In many countries, such genres are almost exclusively in “pay TV”, not FTA (Free To Air), tier. A flawed regulatory environment has obliterated the pay opportunity for many small-footprint or niche genres, making them solely advertising revenue dependent. Reach and frequency translates into ad sales, and absent either or both, into decimation. This is unlike consumption of entertainment and sports, genres characterised by near-universal popularity, long and frequent viewing sessions and dual revenue sources — lucrative subscription and bulge-bracket ad sales.
Small stations reach a few viewers. Correspondingly, they are seen by only a few people in the peoplemeter panel. If, by fair or foul means, the number of viewers for a particular niche channel were to increase even by modest numbers, the outcomes in reach and frequency would bring a discernible uptick in revenue. This sets up a perverse incentive for malpractice. But while it might be relatively easy to attempt, it is altogether different to get away with it. An example from far outside the communication domain should help elucidate this. A few years ago, LIGO, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory at Caltech, announced the first direct detection of gravitational waves. The mathematical methodologies, which enabled this observation, were literally in search for a darning needle in a mega-warehouse of hay, and yet, were able to pinpoint it. The statistical forensics used by BARC are distant cousins to those used by LIGO. Holmes’s trusty magnifying glass now looks like 50 lines of Python code.
With BARC pausing channel-level reporting for 12 weeks in the news genre on Thursday, this might be a good time to reassess whether all channels need to be reported at the same, weekly frequency. Systems in other jurisdictions often stipulate a minimum share-of-audience for half-year blocks to stay in the weeklies. Fall below, and their reporting frequency drops to monthly, or even quarterly.
But, at the same time, fulminating about ratings is a great example of shooting the messenger. We, the consumers of television in India, have legitimate reasons to be miffed with what is served up to us; whether as entertainment, information or news.
However, the answers have more to do with the structure of economic incentives and disincentives, which the legal-regulatory environment has set up, and less with how India measures TV audiences. If your solitary reaction to the brouhaha is to damn the measurement system, you are looking in the wrong place.
Paritosh Joshi is a media professional with a keen interest in audience measurement
The views expressed are personal