If the blood pressure monitor shows that you have high blood pressure, would you break the monitor or call the doctor? And if TV ratings show that the silliest shows get the best ratings, would you tackle content issues or shoot the rating agency down?
That in essence is what the ministry of information and broadcasting is planning to do. It has persistently maintained that ratings are the reason for the ills of the Rs 30,000 crore television business. After two committees, it felt the need to appoint a third one, under Amit Mitra of Ficci, to focus on the same issue.
Dr Mitra’s earlier reports on media, notably radio, have been good. This one falls flat. It is not Dr Mitra’s fault. He just doesn’t have a leg to stand on. The 76-page “Review of Existing Television Rating System in India” tries very hard to justify why a committee was formed to examine the currency an industry uses to buy and sell advertising time.
The ostensible reason is falling content standards. Going by that logic, the standards of reportage in many newspapers and magazines have been falling and paid content is a nuisance. But we haven’t seen the government trying to fix the blame on readership surveys and their methodology. Nor has the government blamed the film industry’s obsession with box-office gross and occupancy ratios, in determining what kind of films will be made. Those metrics too can be called dodgy at times.
The point is even if TV ratings are flawed, it is a commercial matter between the buyer and the seller. If the industry is happy dealing with a flawed metric and paying for it, why should the government bother?
The fundamental premise of this committee, that the race for ratings leads to poor content, is flawed. Therefore, its recommendations too are.
Many of them, such as increasing the sample size, putting the methodology through more rigour have been part of the normal grumblings of an evolving industry. The question always has been who will fund it. Dr Mitra suggests a cess on the industry, to be paid to the somewhat defunct Broadcast Audience Research Council or BARC. The fact, however, remains that as the pressure on margins mounts, television companies and advertisers would have sought a more robust metric in any case. And they would have paid for it voluntarily through increased subscription charges to the two main rating firms — TAM and aMap. Why jumpstart the process?
The enthusiasm with which a government that has made no major policy decision on the media business in five years has been pursuing the whole ratings “issue” is curious. One theory is that this is driven in part by pressure from channels which are owned by politicians or their relatives. Since they don’t show up on viewership numbers, they don’t make money or get enough influence with constituents in a state or city. The thinking goes that controlling the methodology, process and operations of the data gathering process will help fix the problem.
Some of this gets credence if you read the fine print of the report. For example, there is one recommendation about making BARC a not-for-profit company, the monitoring, steering body for TV metrics. The board would have Indian Broadcasting Federation and Indian Society of Advertisers nominees to start with. So far, so good. But the report suggests having a high-powered committee of “specialists from various fields” that will oversee the board of BARC. That sounds for a recipe for all kinds of people to meddle in the ratings process, over and above the heads of the stakeholders to whom it really matters.
You could argue that if the report is so bad why bother. It will fall under the weight of its own inconsistencies. It might have in the face of a strong television industry. But till now the men and women running the Indian TV industry have been pathetic at presenting their point of view or speaking in one voice. For an industry that influences 600 million Indians, this inability to communicate with the government is a lethal shortcoming.
Therefore, even as the industry dithers, the report may become policy that sets a dangerous precedent. What next, radio listenership data or Internet traffic figures?
Vanita Kolhi- The business standard