In depth: Lens on BARC – Of transparency, oversight, and global examples
The credibility of BARC has been under the scanner ever since the infamous TRP malpractices came to the fore. Ironically, BARC faces the same allegations, in particular the tampering of meters, that were levelled against its predecessor TAM. The clamour for transparency and effective oversight has fallen on deaf ears. So, what is the way out of the mess? What will it take BARC to be geared to meet the industry expectations regarding news channel ratings? Are there any global practices worth emulating? Adgully takes a deep dive into the issue.
Without mincing words, strategic marketing and media consultant Chintamani Rao said that BARC, as it stands, has no credibility. “Let BARC do what it is supposed to do. It is a shame. I was one of the founders of BARC. I know what vision we had when we created it. It is pathetic to see what it has become,” he lamented.
So, what is the solution? It is very simple, Rao said. “Basically, the shareholders of BARC have to enable BARC to do what it is supposed to do. I don’t know what they have been doing. Apart from the board, they have an Oversight Committee, a Technical Committee, a Disciplinary Committee. What kind of oversight have they been doing? What is the discipline that they have been enforcing? The Technical Committee of three people does not have a single market researcher, statistician, or any actual user of the data. All of them are at the CEO level. Are they technically qualified? Media planners have been complaining for the past five years that the BARC interface does not work for them. They cannot use the BARC data the way they used to use TAM data. Nothing has been done about it, because the people sitting there are not actual users of data. They don’t understand what these media planners are saying,” Rao explained.
Everyone used to complain about panel tampering at TAM, that everybody knew where TAM meters were, etc. “What is happening now?, Rao asked.
According to him, “TAM was not an industry-driven body. TAM did not have a disciplinary committee of eminent people. You said BARC would take care of all the shortcomings of TAM. What have you done over the last five years? Are these people, those eagles who are supposed to look after BARC, accountable to anyone? What do they do? I am saying this with some basis, because I have been on the TAM Transparency Panel. We actually set up an on-ground vigilance team. We hired a former police officer from the crime branch and he and his team were working on the ground, wherever tampering was going on. We hauled up broadcasters because we found out who was tampering. We stopped publishing their ratings because they were messing with the panels. If you have the guts to do it, you can do it. If you don’t have a vested interest, you can do it. We were a panel of outsiders – I and three people from Europe. I was retired from the industry. None of us had any hand in any of the broadcasting networks. That is why we were able to take the action we took,” he added.
Who will bell the cat?
That is a million-dollar question. “The one thing I have been saying and I will say it again is this: I don’t understand what ISA is doing here. The body of advertisers owns 20 per cent of BARC. What are they doing? How come they are not demanding accountability? It is their money,” asked Rao.
In the entire ecosystem, in whose interest is it to tamper with the ratings? It is the broadcasters, Rao contended. He felt that the broadcasters’ body has to have the guts to take appropriate action against those broadcasters who are tampering with the ratings. “It is very simple. But I don’t see it happening,” he said, adding that the biggest issue with BARC is that it is owned 60 per cent by broadcasters.
“If broadcasting is what is being measured and the majority is owned by broadcasters, what do you expect? Why has ISA accepted the situation? When we first set out to create BARC, it was envisaged as equally owned one-third each by IBF, ISA, and AAAI. But it ended up with 60 per cent being owned by IBF, 20 per cent each by ISA and AAAI. Why is that acceptable to ISA?” asked Rao.
Broadcasters, however, defend the BARC board composition. A senior broadcast executive, on condition of anonymity, told Adgully that the current arrangement is essential for the sustenance of the BARC. “Sixty-per cent of BARC is owned by IBF. The rest (20:20) of the shareholders are not ready to put money in. Can you blame IBF for that? Now IBF is making up the shortfall, because they have to run the organisation,” countered the executive.
Paritosh Joshi, Principal, Provocateur Advisory, also vouched for transparency within BARC. “What does a small channel, say in Punjab or Kerala or Bengal, or even a small agency or advertiser, know about what is happening in the technical committee of the BARC? Are they fully familiar? Are they able to understand the way the research is being guided by this committee? Some components might be confidential, which is fine. Then you redact that report to that extent. For example, the information as to which household the meter is installed need not be shared. Or how many meters are there in a particular town. But there are many things which need to be in the public domain. When a public body is found to be engaged in a behaviour which is not healthy, then the right way of dealing with such a body is to say that everything needs to be visible,” contended Joshi.
Nielsen in the US
Delving deep into the rating mechanism with global examples, Paritosh Joshi said that internationally, the industry bodies and private entities have both evolved in audience rating.
In the US, for example, Nielsen has been the provider of TV measurement for a very long time.
“Actually, Nielsen pioneered television measurement in the US and continues to remain so. Even in the US, despite its storied history, Nielsen, at various points in time, have faced various allegations, such as the ‘ratings don’t reflect the underlying reality’ of the television market in the US. Back in 2006 or 2007, Rupert Murdoch wanted to take all of his network (entertainment, news, satellite, cable) out of Nielsen because he believed the rating agency was a lot of rubbish. Measurements get into arguments and controversies everywhere. In the Philippines and even in Pakistan, entire panels had to be abandoned when it was found that the entire thing was fraudulent and suffering from a great amount of leakages and malpractices. At the other extreme end, there are industry bodies in places like South Africa, Brazil, the UK, and France, where a joint body of the industry commissions research,” he informed.
So, added Joshi, it is also possible for research to be done by agencies like Nielsen or some other global research player, but it is not vendor-on-vendor-managed. The management is in the hands of some commissioning entity and the vendor delivers to that contract. “That’s the pattern in the UK, France and here in India. We had a vendor-on-vendor managed system till TAM was there. After TAM retired, BARC became the commissioning agency. In principle, it was supposed to be an extremely accountable model, because the industry quite literally owns the research and decides what has to be researched by establishing an RFP,” he said.
The overseeing process at BARC has two components. One is executive oversight by BARC staff who are meant to monitor the research. “There is also monitoring by the stakeholders, which has two levels. From 2019, these processes of oversight by BARC management and the Technical Committee, and the Board has failed because of the alleged malpractices, which were actively driven by the company and not by people out there. They were colluding with the people inside the company to distort results that would be published by BARC in its weekly ratings. This resulted in BARC top management people being arrested or being in custody,” Joshi pointed out.
Experts are unanimous in their argument that the news channels’ overarching dependency on advertisements is one of the leading triggers of the ratings fiasco. Unlike the GEC segment, which has other modes of revenue to bank upon, the news genre has to singularly rely on advertisements to sustain the business. And ratings play a significant part in the entire process.
It is nothing but sheer corporate rivalry, which is at play here, opined the senior broadcast executive. “Nobody can satisfy any channel, whether it is news or entertainment channel, with regard to their ratings. It is an impossible thing to do. The moment any news channel is drawn into ratings, they feel aggrieved and targeted,” he noted.
Paritosh Joshi pointed out that the news genre was the most affected due to the over-dependency on advertising. “In the entertainment genre, there is revenue from subscription, OTT, and syndication streams. But in the news genre, the only option is advertisements,” he added.
So, how to bring transparency in the working of BARC? Everybody has a corporate rivalry, the broadcast executive said, adding, “The BARC body was formed as per the guidelines of the MIB. You sit together and strengthen the body without any bias towards their narrow business interests. Nothing is going to happen until you do that to make the body credible. Because everybody is a stakeholder. And when the stakeholders come to BARC, they should think of BARC only. It is a very huge task.”
Reform the regulatory conditions
According to the senior executive, this has nothing to do with the government. He felt that the government is only concerned with what the audience watches. “We are not like Iran or North Korea. It is the currency between the broadcasters and the advertisers. If the advertisers are happy to put their money in a channel, what is the problem? If people are watching polarising content, you should not look to BARC to reform the broadcasting sector,” he opined.
According to the executive, now only news channels are complaining, because they are heavily dependent on advertising. This is very apparent.
The authorities should reform the licensing and the regulatory conditions to reduce the dependencies of the broadcasters on advertisement revenue. That is the real reform. According to him, the core issue is not BARC, but the licensing and regulatory conditions. “You reform it and reduce the regulatory body licensing conditions and reduce the necessity for broadcasters to only rely on advertising revenue,” the broadcaster stressed.
Why the news channels are over the board over ratings is that they are heavily dependent on advertisement revenue. “The moment they come down, they are in a panic mode as if the advertisers will walk out of that channel,” said the executive.
Continuing further, he said, “That is the problem. You cannot blame BARC for that. I am not defending BARC. But BARC has its own problems, such as governance-related issues, which is only one side of the problem. The other side of the problem is the news channels. That is because their business models are wrong. That means you have to clean up these licensing regulatory guidelines so that the news channel business model is up for review. But nobody will bell the cat because the situation is fluid for everybody right now, except the Indian democracy, the constitution, and the people of India.”
According to him, the aggregation business, where small broadcasters can piggyback on big broadcasters in the bouquet, was a good one to reduce advertiser dependency. Unfortunately, the aggregation business was abolished by TRAI.
“That means more broadcasters don’t need to go to DPOs to play or carry their channels by the platforms. Because it was the business of big broadcasters to bundle the news channels along with their own channels. So, the small news broadcasters do not need to depend on the platform operators. They get the fixed fee. And news broadcasters only need to concentrate on making good content. Right now, the situation is such that if the news broadcasters collect one rupee from the market, at least 80 paisa goes to service their distribution business, because TRAI has abolished the aggregation business. Now, the small broadcasters are at the mercy of the DPOs. Now, only 20 per cent of the revenue goes into making content, with the rest going into servicing the distribution cost. With this, the content will never improve, when you don’t invest in content production,” affirmed the senior executive.
The Vempati Committee
“The government formed a one-man committee with Shashi Shekhar Vempati for an inquiry. Vempati is on the Board of BARC. It is curious that somebody who is supposedly on the board of governance is now being asked to be a referee on the board of governance. He is basically commenting on himself. If there has been a structural failure, it includes him. He is part of it. So, how can somebody who is actually involved in a failure be asked to be the person who actually makes a diagnosis of that failure?” asked Joshi.
One of the things that Vempati had recommended in the report was that there were independent people who had to be brought into the technical committee and the board, Joshi added.
Global best practices
Are there any global practices worth emulating? What are the best practices that can be tried here?
According to Paritosh Joshi, this kind of problem never even arises in the best practices internationally. Ho noted that France and England are extremely rigorous in their rating processes, and the level of participation by their technical committees in all the decisions is extremely high. “Through the technical committee, all the stakeholders are also very conscious and aware of whatever is going on in the research. The people who serve on the technical committee in these two countries are extremely capable and qualified. You need to have a really good personal understanding of every aspect of what leads finally to the production of the rating,” he added.
Indeed, the nominees of the broadcasters (like BBC or Sky) as well as agencies don’t do anything else, Joshi said, adding, “That’s their job as the representative of their respective company in the technical committee. They hire extremely capable individuals who are focused only on delivering the best possible research. Theirs is the gold standard research.”
According to Joshi, the best practice is to:
- Gauge the professional standards to the best you can get.
- Follow a rigorous, transparent process even when you want to bring in independent voices and ensure that those voices have the nerve and the backbone to stand up to anything.
In the audience research of any medium, be it print, radio, digital, or outdoors, the job is not to please anybody, Joshi contended. The agency’s role, he maintained, is to deliver results which are accurate and not please anybody. “In such a situation, you will become unpopular. But you are not running a research agency for popularity, but integrity and fidelity. You will be saying your value systems are solid and the data is accurate. I don’t need to go out and make anybody happy. BARC should act on the highest standards of ethicality and research quality. Popularity should not matter. Customer delight absolutely does not matter. It has to be like the holy book,” he added.
“In any measurement system, the medium, which needs to be measured, will be the medium, which will provide most of the capital and revenue required to make the system work. This is how it should be. Because ultimately their literal survival depends on having a currency, which enables them to measure their product,” Joshi concluded.