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What is TRP, can it be rigged, and why is it so important for news channels?

A news piece from last week sent shock waves throughout the entire electronic media industry when the Mumbai Police announced that it has busted a ‘TRP rigging’ scam. Mumbai Police Commissioner Param Bir Singh in a press conference said that three channels, Fakt Marathi, Box Cinema, and Republic TV have been found to have indulged in this TRP scam. The Mumbai Police also arrested owners of channels Fakt Marathi and Box Cinema, and two former employees of Hansa Research- a market research agency responsible for collecting TRP data. Soon after this sensational news came out, journalists across the country started discussing the problems with the TRP model of revenue which left a lot of people confused. What are TRPs? How can they be rigged? Why does electronic media need them so badly? What does it mean for the viewers?

Source: Twitter

Television Rating Points (TRPs) are indicative of how many people belonging to a socio-economic group, age group, or gender watch which show for how much time in a specific period of time. In India, this data is made public on every Thursday that it is calculated on a weekly basis. These ratings are supposed to work like a feedback mechanism for channels as it tells them which shows are being liked by the viewers and which are not. Shows with better viewership get more slots while shows with less viewership are pulled down. This also makes the channel understand the needs and expectations of the public which the channels can try to cater to. As much as this system sounds pretty simple, it is flawed at many levels and thus does not stand true to its objective.

Initially there were two rating agencies Television Audience Measurement (TAM) and INTAM. In the year 2001 INTAM was taken over by TAM becoming the only rating agency for the country. Back then only 2000 people-meters were installed and the data was extrapolated for the country’s one billion population. A lot of objections were raised and this became controversial when NDTV sued TAM for billions of dollars for allegedly manipulating viewership data in India. Understanding that the calculation system is indeed faulty, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting in 2008 addressed this issue and asked the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) to frame guidelines for rating agencies. TRAI recommended setting up of an industry led body, the Broadcast Audience Research Council (BARC). BARC started its operations in 2015 and soon when TAM exited, BARC became the sole provider of TV rating services since 2016. To enable them to accurately calculate the data, BARC hired Hansa Research- which is a consumer insights company operating in 77 countries.

BARC is an industry body owned by advertisers, ad agencies, and broadcasting companies. At present BARC has installed metres in 40,000 sample households in their measurement universe of 150 million households.These metres are called BAR-o-metres.The sample size which decides the viewership pattern of the entire country is skewed due to its small size, and to get realistic figures, the sample size needs to be increased. This system of ratings is manipulable and can be easily rigged which has caught the attention of the public after recent events.

According to the allegations of the Mumbai Police Commissioner, channels like Republic TV, Fakt Marathi, and Box Cinema were paying employees of Hansa Research to manipulate ratings in their favour. These employees in turn were paying households with bar-o-metres 500 to 600rs per day to keep a channel on. The unusual trends in TRP were noticed by Hansa research and BARC who complained to the Police. The two former employees of Hansa who have been arrested left the company in June. One of them had 20 lakhs in his bank account and 8.5 lakh cash in his locker. This money was supposed to be paid to households to keep certain channels on.

How do these people meters work and how are TRPs calculated using these machines. These metres are connected to the television sets by removing the back cover of the TV. Two wires of the meter are soldered to the TV set. It is indeed questionable that why would anyone allow this tinkering of their TV set without any incentive in return. It has been reported that households are given a Plasma TV with a list of channels that the family members need to keep switched on. This insistence on having more TRPs than other channels does raise the question that why is it so important for a channel to lead the TRP race.

The answer to this question simply lies in understanding the revenue model that is followed by television channels. Major part of revenue of channels is generated by advertisements. To generate more revenue, these channels need a greater number of advertisements. Advertisers have only one objective, they want more and more people to know about their brand and TRPs are indicative of a channel’s viewership. Advertising on a channel with greater viewership means reaching a larger audience. Therefore consequently channels need to have more TRPs to get more advertisements, to get more revenue. Now that we know TRPs do not accurately represent viewership of every channel, advertisers could scrutinise the data to ensure that their money is spent in the right direction but they do not have this option as they can only go by these figures and they have no other data to compare it with.

The general idea is that channels care about what viewers want to watch. It is believed that news channels cater to the needs and expectations of their viewers to show them what they want to watch and what they are interested in. While it is true to some extent given the tabloidization of news that we see today, the latest TRP scam shows that these news channels care more about their advertisers than their viewers. For now it does seem that only certain channels are involved in TRP rigging but local reports tell us that almost every channel invests heavily on these agents who ensure that their channels are kept switched on in certain households.

The revenue generation model followed by news channels is faulty but the viewership measuring system is flawed because of extremely less number of metres for a country of 1.2 billion. The sample size is so small that it is not totally representative of the country’s entire diverse rural as well as urban population. Expanding the sample size would be the first step towards making the system of ratings fair. A larger sample size with regular supervision and inspection of these households can protect the ratings from getting rigged.

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