Media which usually ‘reports’ news, unfortunately, is now ‘making’ news - and that too, for all the wrong reasons. The Commissioner of Police, Mumbai is now investigating under ‘criminal breach of trust’ (409 IPC) and ‘cheating’ (420 IPC) charges against television channels trying to be ‘number one’ by manipulating audience data, released by Broadcast Audience Research Council ( BARC).
That data was being manipulated was a suspicion lingering from before BARC was born, when a handful of advertising agencies were controlling the ad revenue pie (which according to FICCI report will be around Rs 79000 crores for television) by manipulating the Television Rating Points (TRP) then issued by an organisation called TAM, a joint venture of AC Nielson and IMRB. TAM was replaced by BARC, by including a government representative in the council, to make the audience assessment fair. Apparently this system has also failed to be fair. BARC has lodged an FIR with the police complaining that some employees of their associate, Hansa, has being regularly paying money to the households which formed part of the ‘peoples meter’ network which collected the data.
Media at the moment is reeling under serious charges of fake news, paid news, hate news, propaganda and what not. Added to this is now the charge of TRP manipulation. And this is criminal offense. Starving the print media, so long television media was making a lot of money till of course the social media – Facebook and Google – took over. Even then, the market was upbeat. The audiovisual media has its own charm, and the advertisers continue to support television media, though the maximum revenue goes to entertainment channels and sports and the news channels are left with, according to some figures, with a meager 2/3 per cent of the revenue share. The manipulation of the TRP mostly happens among the news channels which are scrambling among themselves to get the biggest chunk of the ‘left-over’ ad revenue by claiming to be ‘number one’ in audience viewership. Here the manipulation of TRP becomes imperative.
Possibly media has now reached a ‘tipping point’ where it must take a turn for the better or go bust. The TRP manipulation could be the last nail in the coffin. The credibility of the media has reached a new low. The advertisers need to give a relook to the entire process of media planning sponsorship. They need to think more qualitatively - judging the contents of the news channels - and not just blindly depend on quantitative measures like TRP ratings which have turned out to be highly defective means of measurement. As it is, according to some reports, there are about 44000 ‘people’s meters’ on rooftops of as many households in the whole country of 130 crore people. This is a highly inadequate sampling method to measure the audience preferences regarding channels and their programmes.
The audience too needs to rethink as to how long they will allow themselves to be bluffed. The shake up in the media is inevitable. A strong regulatory board seems a necessity for broadcast media. Freedom of speech cannot be used as an excuse for corruption. The whole sordid story of TRP manipulation has revealed that media is not fit for self-regulation. We have willfully opened the door for government intervention.