‘Scripted stings’ must not deter BARC


Opinion_On_BARC_PavanRChawlaDOTComWhen in end-November the Broadcast Audience Research Council (BARC) India suspended the publication of the TV viewership ratings of two Telugu news channels – TV9 and V6 – and one Hindi channel (India News) for manipulating their channels’ viewership in some BARC India-monitored TV homes,  it sent a strong and unequivocal signal to the entire ecosystem of TV broadcasters and a reassurance to the marketers and advertisers who rely on the BARC India TV viewership ratings to make their TV ad spend decisions. It had even filed a police compliant in Kerala against attempts to influence panel homes. (My earlier story here)

Well, not even three weeks after that BARC action, I read, bemused, reports that Telugu360.com had gone ahead and conducted a series of ‘stings’ with some households that they claim were BARC panel homes and had caught them manipulating the viewership at the behest of the beneficiary channels.  Telugu360.com had gone after the homes and district- and area chiefs of agencies that BARC had contracted to survey TV households from which TV viewership data is collated and fed into what finally yields the BARC TV viewership ratings across the country.

And, the ‘stings’, Telugu360.com averred, had  ‘revealed’ that the homes, markets and even states surveyed had been severely compromised; ergo, the BARC data, the site said, was completely inaccurate, manipulated, unbelievable and therefore not usable as the industry standard to plan and buy media on the India’s single largest advertising platform, Cable & Satellite Television.

The fact is attempts to infiltrate panel homes have been made long before BARC was even a thought in the industry’s minds. But for some strange reason, in spite of all the smoke, there never was any apparent attempt to trace and put out the fires. Thankfully, BARC has been proactive by not only talking about the problem, but following up on manipulation with strong and decision action, walking the talk that earlier was neither uttered, nor followed up on.

Convenient timing

Why has Telugu360 released the ‘stings’ now?  Obviously, because it seems to be linked to the fact that BARC acted against the errant channels – and that action has probably not only hurt the channels but also some people on the ground who were part of the contaminated system. Is it those vested interests that are hitting back at BARC with a motivated agenda because their interests have been hurt?

Red herrings

My friends who follow the AP/Telangana market tell me that none of the “sting” videos mention the channels that BARC had suspended, while all others, especially mainline channels like Gemini Zee etcetera, are “quoted”. That is strange. The channel names that were never mentioned by the “stung” viewers, were the very channels BARC had acted against. Now that is not a coincidence.

You can join the dots.

For me this is indeed the smoking gun. Could it be that this entire tableau has been concocted by the errant channels to deflect attention?

BARC has consciously not hired compromised employees of the predecessor – some of them threatened to hit back and now are hitting back with malicious stories like the one on Telugu360. It seems like a couple or three channels with vested interests and a sinking reputation to resurrect are behind this agenda against BARC, aided and abetted by disgruntled ex-employees of a predecessor.

I believe BARC is not only aware of people subverting this system on the ground, but has also acted against them -– compromised panel homes have been de-installed from the system; at a rough estimate that figure is about 5-10%. This is over and above the regular 25% churn, where meters are periodically de-installed from homes and then installed in new ones; on a pre-emptive basis, to avoid any such compromise.

One hears that from the agencies it had contracted, BARC has sacked those individuals identified as part of the manipulators. In fact, police cases too have been initiated against them.

‘Scripted stings’

I believe the vigilance team at BARC has proof that the ‘stings’ Telugu360.com conducted were actually pieces to ‘unknown’ camera read out from scripts. Those household owners/residents whom Telugu360.com ‘secretly’ videographed were said to have been  paid to read out the scripts. So BARC has solid and sustainable evidence, and word is they’re working with the system to ensure criminal manipulators are legally brought to book, which, incidentally, will also be thrown at them. Wonder what Telugu360.com will say now?

The good thing is, BARC India’s  action against those trying to compromise the system seems set to continue, with guidance and suppot from an eco system that is braced to act and not allow anything to be pushed under the carpet.

Considered, committed action

The outside world had one day received the announcement that BARC had ceased publishing the ratings of the three ‘criminally errant’ channels and would keep them on hold for a month. But in all fairness to BARC, that wasn’t an overnight decision. BARC had issued showcause notices to each channel around two to three months prior.

Why the channels have got relief on the basis of ‘incomplete procedure’ I believe is because BARC did not go the whole hog and reveal the exact names and addresses of the monitored households that had been compromised by the criminally errant channels. I hear they did not reveal the names because, the stakes being what they are,  BARC was worried about the physical safety and well being of the people involved.

Collaborations

And coming to NewsLaundry (NL) now, and the fact that it ran the story the way it has appeared. OK, actually it wasn’t the editorial side of the site, but its ‘collaborations’ unit called NLCollaborations that allowed Telugu360.com, the orchestrator of the ‘stings’,  to file a truly one-sided, obviously motivated and damning story — bylined, believe me, ‘Telugu360.com’!. With a worse headline: Don’t Trust BARC Ratings. And with the strap: ‘An investigation suggests BARC is easily manipulated. Households claim they’re paid in cash to watch certain channels so that their ratings improve.’

Even if it was an NLCollabroations story,   NewsLaundry should never have allowed the publication of a story filed from anywhere but middle of the road. The story has no mention of BARC’s position or comments from them. NewsLaundry or its NLCollaborations, was dutybound to get the other side of the story – ie BARC’s viewpoint – and should have held the story till it did get the inputs. This wasn’t a story promoting a film or some brand or product offering, remember; it had serious allegations and drew damning conclusions about the veracity and reliability of BARC and the data it publishes.

Yes, BARC is taciturn. Even a legitimate journalist might not always easily get BARC’s point of view because I know BARC, as an industry body, is as reluctant to seek media attention as it is aggressively vigilant to weed out data manipulation. So speak not, remain unheard. Like a lawyer or a doctor who, ethical behaviour rules dictate, must not advertise. But if a reaction were sought for allegations such as in the NLC story, surely BARC would have made its position clear. But I’m aware there was no attempt made to contact BARC on this at all before the completely motivated Telugu360.com story with its damning headline was published. Oh, in all fairness, at the end of the story NewsLaundry did print this: “Disclaimer: The information, ideas or opinions appearing in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the views of Newslaundry.com. Newslaundry.com does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same. If the article carries photographs or images, we do not vouch for their authenticity.” Meaning, the author and NewsLaundry were not professionally connected or related. Which was why the story did not even have a NewsLaundry byline. But what happened to self-regulation, NLCollaborations?

That disclaimer was much like first reporting that a poor village girl has been abused and assaulted, but saying, ‘Hey, we just heard of this, we aren’t quite sure if it actually happened. For a site with like a million followers, that isn’t the responsible thing to do, because you’re playing with the reputation of a poor young woman.

Well, BARC isn’t a defenseless woman. It is a joint industry body which exists for the administration of the television measurement system. It has representatives from advertisers, agencies and broadcasters. Let us remember that BARC has been created in absolute consonance and compliance with a set of rules that were framed by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India and were notified by the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting. These are MIB rules that BARC has always adhered to in the manner in which the measurement system was constructed and architected, and in the manner in which it has been conducting itself professionally across the markets it covers, and with the stakeholders involved.

BARC just needs to keep doing what it has been doing in exactly the same spirit and with the same scrutiny and intolerance of any tampering or line-crossing.

Strong signal needed

Opinion_On_BARC_PavanRChawlaDOTComI believe it would really help if the regulatory body and the ministry were to step out briefly and say they frown upon any attempts to tamper with the measurement system. That the measurement system has been functioning in full compliance with the rules that the government of India and TRAI had been instrumental in framing. The moment a body of the state says ‘we agree with the work this agency has been doing, and that nobody should attempt to subvert or sabotage it… that we are watching, and that we have the willingness and the ability to act against you if you engage in any mischief…’  that would send a strong signal that the measurement system is not to be tampered with.

A strong signal needs to be sent out.

Similar precedents with ASCI

This thought comes to mind from what has been happening with the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI), another body that does great work.  Today, on a regular basis, various ministries of the Government of India, like the Ministry of Consumer Affairs, or Information &  Broadcasting, or, in recent days, the Ministry of Ayush, have actually actively gone and made statements endorsing the self-regulatory work that ASCI does, thereby strengthening it. That kind of thing sends a strong signal that ASCI is not to be messed with. ASCI might be a self-regulatory body, it might consist of  no representative of the government of India, but important ministries of the government of India involved with consumer protection, actually endorse the work that ASCI does.

In fact, Patanjali had gone to court against ASCI’s charge of false advertising against them. The matter was in a court in Uttarakhand, and the court  has actually handed down a penalty of 11 lakh rupees to Patanjali.

A senior industry professional who has been closely involved with several self regulatory and industry bodies, told me, “Something like this is very reassuring – when the law courts or the ministries or organs of the government of India also endorse the work that we do directly or indirectly, in a sense it strengthens our arms and we become stronger in our self-regulatory work.”

So I think the ministry or the regulatory body needs to step up and come out with a warning to anyone attempting to subvert the fair TV measurement that BARC is custodian of.

BARC critical to industry well-being

BARC as an institution is crucial and critical to the wellbeing of the industry. All the stakeholders of the industry must be vocal in their support of BARC and condemnation of those attempting to subvert the ratings system.

One doesn’t have to name names, but we know there are several people who are disaffected that BARC exists. It is only three years old, still in its infancy, but it is a child that is walking steadily and purposefully. Yes, it is a little bit precocious. However, there are many who mean it harm, and it is important that those in the industry who have a stake in or are keen to protect the communication industry in India do not countenance any attempts to damage it. Especially at this stage when it is still vulnerable. One body blow can impair it to the point of no return. BARC will become stronger with time, without a doubt. One has seen that with other industry bodies that have grown to great positions of strength and service — BARB and MediaMetrie are good examples of strong entities that are muscular bodies today; generally taciturn, but even obstreperous when they have to be. Today they are like the strong silent man standing in the corner of a room to ensure nobody is up to any mischief. They are the bouncers of their industry.

BARC too is doing just that. Sure, it’s a much younger bouncer, but thankfully it brooks no mischief. And while there some who bode it ill will, there are numerous people of goodwill, and the people of goodwill – both in the fraternity and the government – must make it loudly clear that any attempts made to sully BARC will not be taken kindly to.

Even though BARC is acquitting itself extremely well, considering the gravity of what the errant channels had set out to do, the MIB and TRAI — like the other ministries supporting ASCI —  must make their displeasure heard.

I’m waiting to see if NewsLaundry does a follow up story for its large readership and body of Twitter followers. Surely one is called for. One from its editorial team, no less, which should guarantee a middle-of-the-road piece.


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