After a long wait of 15 months, the television news ecosystem heaved a sigh of relief on Wednesday/January 12, 2022 when the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (MIB) issued a directive asking the Broadcast Audience Research Council (BARC) to release TV news viewership data with immediate effect.
However, the announcement came with significant changes in the system of releasing the viewership data- the reporting of news and niche genres shall be on a ‘four-week rolling average’ concept. The MIB has also asked BARC to release the last three months’ data for the genre in a monthly format for fair and equitable representation of actual trends. While the government’s move to allow the release of data was welcomed by all stakeholders, including news channels, media agencies, and advertisers, the revised system of issuing the ratings has received a mixed bag of responses.
The decision came as a big relief, especially for the smaller channels that have been majorly impacted by the blackout of the TRP data. The COVID-19 pandemic has pushed advertisers to cut down their marketing budgets, and in the absence of ratings, smaller channels that are not backed by big networks, are losing money. Although the blackout did not impact bigger networks, transparency in the ecosystem became a huge concern. The TV news industry is eagerly waiting for BARC India to release the data, hoping to increase ad revenue, especially during the upcoming state assembly election. It has been 5 days since the MIB directed BARC India to release data immediately, but the ratings agency has maintained silence on the issue. According to several industry leaders, BARC is yet to communicate with its stakeholders about the data roll-out.
“We haven’t received any communication from BARC India on the news data release. Besides the press release which was circulated in the media community, there is no official communication from the ministry as well. That said, the data roll-out might not happen so soon,” a senior executive with a top news network said on the condition of anonymity.
The MIB Order
“In the spirit of the TRP Committee Report and Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI’s) recommendation dated 28.04.2020, BARC has undertaken revision in its processes, protocols, oversight mechanism and initiated changes in governance structure etc. The reconstitution of the Board and the Technical Committee to allow for the induction of Independent Members has also been initiated by BARC. A permanent Oversight Committee has also been formed. The access protocols for data have been revamped and tightened. BARC has indicated that in view of the changes undertaken by it, they are reaching out to related constituencies to explain the new proposals and are in readiness to actually commence the release as per the new protocols.”
Joint Working Group
The ministry has also set up a ‘Working Group’ under the chairmanship of the CEO of Prasar Bharati; for the consideration of leveraging the Return Path Data (RPD) capabilities for the use of TRP services, as also recommended by TRAI and the TRP Committee Report. The Committee shall submit its report in four months’ time.
The Joint Working Group will be chaired by SS Vempati, CEO, Prasar Bharati. A representative from MeitY, BIS, BARC, Harit Nagpal, President, DTH Association, and a representative from AIDCF will be the members of this group.
Uncertainty around the rolling out of TRP data with immediate effect
While the MIB has asked BARC to release TRP data with immediate effect, there is still no clarity on when the ratings will actually be rolled out. BARC has not made an official announcement yet, and hence, the uncertainty continues. According to some industry leaders, the actual rolling out of the data will take a few weeks. “The release of the rating data might not happen so soon as is being anticipated because there are technicalities involved. It might take at least 8-10 weeks for the first set of data to come out,” a senior executive with a leading news network said on the condition of anonymity. Meanwhile, ad sales executives of news channels say that delay in publishing data will mean that the news channels will not be able to take advantage of the ratings during the assembly election period. The result of five state assembly elections will be announced on March 10.
“If the data roll-out gets delayed by eight weeks or beyond, the news genre will not be able to capitalize on the resumption of ratings. In the absence of data, the news channels, particularly the smaller ones, have got severely impacted,” a senior ad sales executive with a leading network said. Another media executive says, “BARC is already collecting data, so there is no reason to postpone it. If the data is ready for publishing, there is no case to postpone it now.”
Return of ratings calls for hike in ad rates
The announcement has come at a time when there are state assembly elections (Goa, Manipur, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, and Uttarakhand) in February. The move will benefit the news broadcasters who can now increase their ad rates. While some networks have already hiked the rates, others are expected to follow suit now as MIB has asked for the release of data immediately.
The following two months will be like the Indian Premier League (IPL) for the news channels, said an ad sales head of a leading news network, on the condition of anonymity. He said, “The genre will see an influx of ad monies due to a spike in viewership and the resumption of rating data. In any election season, news channels earn at least 8-10% of their overall top line.”
“Since elections are around the corner and news data is coming out, it will help the broadcasters, especially bigger ones, to get the right value for the ad inventory. After the rating blackout, the ad deals were happening based on a presumption of the last exit, which was October 2020,” the ad sales head said while adding that his network has already increased pricing for the next three months by about 25% because the supply is limited while the demand is expected to go up.
He also noted that all news channels would revise their pricing once the data comes out, “The pricing will also depend on the market share of the channel compared to the last rating in Oct, 2020.”
The ad sales chief of another news network said that the news channels would have found it difficult to get a rate hike due to the absence of data. However, the channels will not gain much if the data roll-out gets delayed by five-six weeks. The revenue head of a news channel pointed out that big networks and news channels didn’t see any impact from the rating blackout. However, the long-tail channels got impacted badly, and they are the ones who will benefit from the resumption of news rating data.
“Things would have been much better for the news genre had it not been for the sudden spike in Covid-19 cases. There is a lot of uncertainty around, so clients are in the wait-and-watch mode. Some impact is bound to happen since we cannot meet people due to work-from-home,” he stated.
Provocateur Advisory Principal Paritosh Joshi said that news channels have been increasing ad inventory to get growth. However, the increase in commercial airtime has alienated the viewers. He believes that the resumption of news ratings, coupled with state assembly elections, is a perfect opportunity to up the ad rates. “They have a big opportunity to increase their ad rates during the state assembly elections. UP election is the biggest opportunity for news channels to get a rate hike. Resumption of news ratings will positively impact the news channel pricing,” he stated.
But he also cautioned that news channels will have difficulty in getting the correct pricing in the next financial year if they don’t hike the prices now. “If they don’t hike prices in this financial year, they will ruin their chances in the next financial year also. Without ratings, it isn’t easy to get the right value from advertisers. News channel ad rates were going up even before the rating blackout,” he added.
NBDA and NBF
The development has been welcomed by the News Broadcasters & Digital Association (NBDA), formerly News Broadcasters Association (NBA), which has said that MIB’s decision has vindicated their stand that the ratings system had deficiencies.
NBDA has been a vocal critic of BARC’s measurement system since the suspension of the ratings (initially for 12 weeks) in October 2020 following the unearthing of the TRP manipulation scam. It had welcomed BARC’s decision to discontinue the ratings, saying that the suspension is an important step in the right direction, and the measurement agency should use these 12 weeks to completely overhaul its systems and restore the credibility of the information it collects.
In a statement NBDA President Rajat Sharma had then said, “Recent revelations have brought disrepute to the measurement agency and by extension the broadcast news media. The corrupted, compromised, irrationally fluctuating data is creating a false narrative on What India Watches and has been putting pressure on our members to take editorial calls that run counter to the journalistic values and ideals of journalism. The current atmosphere of toxicity, abuse and fake news is no longer tenable and NBA as the custodian and guardian of Indian broadcast media believes a bold step of putting ratings of news genre on hold will help in improving the content.”
Subsequently, when there were talks in the industry about BARC planning to resume the ratings in January 2021, NBDA had written a letter to the agency, requesting it to extend the blackout period for another two to three months. Sources shared that in the letter, NBDA also enquired about the ‘cleansing processes’ that BARC was supposed to take up in the three months of blackout period.
Meanwhile, the News Broadcasters Federation (NBF) has expressed disappointment over BARC withholding the television ratings for the news genre. Issuing a statement on January 13, the NBF has said, “The audience viewership data is with BARC and withholding it despite clear instruction from the Ministry, is not necessary. BARC should comply and release the ratings of news channels without any further delay. If there are news channels that don’t want ratings, they can be voluntarily exempt.
NBF calls upon BARC to release the ratings and not delay this any further, to put an end to the severe challenge the news genre was facing as advertising was deeply hurt in absence of any ratings.”