By Dr Abhay Kumar
The media, which holds the flag of uprightness, is now reluctant to talk about the dirt defacing its own image. The immediate context is the claim of Mumbai Police that news channels including the Republic TV have indulged in the malpractices of boosting TRP (Television Rating Points).
A day after the police allegation, The Telegraph (Kolkata, October 9, 2020, p. 5) carried a three-column news story with the following headline: “TRP racket finger at Republic TV”. Based on the news agency PTI, the opening lines of the story read: “Mumbai police on Thursday claimed to have busted a Television Rating Points (TRP) manipulation racket, adding that four persons have been arrested in this case”.
In its story, The Telegraph included the statement of Mumbai police commissioner Param Bir Singh in which he alleged that the Republic TV channel had been also part of the TRP racket. Reacting to the allegation, the Republic TV Editor-in-Chief Arnab Goswami – who has been criticized for lowering the standard of journalism by speaking up in a jingoistic tone and brazenly supporting the establishment and Hindutva forces – said that the Republic TV had been dragged into the racket because he had earlier questioned the role of Mumbai police chief in film actor Sushant Singh Rajput case.
Note that the Mumbai Police had summoned Republic TV’s chief financial officer to appear before it on Saturday morning. But the channel, instead of going to the police, has decided to approach the Supreme Court.
What is TRP? How is it calculated? Why do the news channels often include in unethical practices for boosting their TRP? “How the TRP system works”, published in The Indian Express (New Delhi, October 9, p. 15.), explains that “In simple terms, TRPs represent how many people, from which socio-economic categories, watched which channels for how much time during a particular period. This could be for an hour, a day, or even a week; India follows the international standard of one minute. The data is usually made public every week.”
Remember that the TV industry last year did business to the tune of Rs 78,700 crore. TRPs, measuring the popularity of TV channels, are one of the major sources of income. After the liberalization of the economy in the early 1990s, the advertisements from the corporate sectors became a lifeline for the media.
In other words, the higher the TRPs, the bigger the income for the TV channels. It is because of this reason that most of the Indian’s mainstream media are less committed to its viewers and readers and more to the corporate players.
The Broadcast Audience Research Council (BARC) has been entrusted with calculating Television rankings. The BARC is “an industry body jointly owned by advertisers, ad agencies, and broadcasting companies, represented by The Indian Society of Advertisers, the Indian Broadcasting Foundation and the Advertising Agencies Association of India. Though it was created in 2010, the I&B Ministry notified the Policy Guidelines for Television Rating Agencies in India on January 10, 2014, and registered BARC in July 2015 under these guidelines, to carry out television ratings in India” (The Indian Express, October 15).
According to an estimate, the BARC has placed 45,000 “BAR-O-meters” empanelled households from different socio-economic backgrounds. The BAR-O-meters are kept secret so that they may not be rigged. Note that the placement of the Bar-O-Meters is based on the sampling method as reaching out to millions of TV viewers across the country is not a very difficult task.
The opportunity for manipulation opens up when the broadcasters come to know the location of Bar-O-Metre. Afterwards, they can offer a bribe to facilitate a particular channel to be watched. For example, the Mumbai Police Chief alleged that the people were paid Rs. 500-600 to watch a particular channel: “In some cases, people who do not understand English were keeping English-language channels such as Republic on through the day. We have recorded their statements.” (The Indian Express, October 15, p. 1).
The Mumbai Police began to investigate the TRP racket following a complaint by Hansa, which has been contracted by the BARC for calculating the barometers.
Related to this is the scramble for higher TRPs and the unethical practice of manipulation in boosting TRPs. In the past, several people had questioned if TRP rating had reflected the popularity of news channels. For example, Rajat Sharma, owner of India TV news, earlier spoke against the TRP ranking of TV9 Bharatvarsh: “these are corrupt practices, which are being done with complete connivance with BARC and the broadcaster” (The Indian Express, October 9, p. 15). Two years back the information and Broadcasting Minister also raised concerns about how the viewership of Doordarshan was underreported.
While the English newspapers reported the issue, they did not spend a sufficient time on debating this issue. For the last three days, since the Mumbai Police named ‘Republic TV’, hardly was any editorial comment made. Even the opinion pieces were not carried.
Perhaps the only exception was former chief election commission S Y Qureshi’s article (“True TRP”, The Indian Express (October 10). In his piece, Qureshi argues that the rigging of TRP has a long history. Recalling his own experience as Doordarshan’s DG (2002-03), Qureshi writes how a private news channel indulged in corrupt practices at the cost of Doordarshan: “As DG Doordarshan (DD) in 2002-3, I had encountered the racket which was rampant and was working against the national broadcaster. Even though Doordarshan had 35 out of the top 50 programmes in all TV homes (Terrestrial and Cable & Satellite-C&S), Television Audience Measurement (TAM) did not show even a single programme in the first 50 slots in the C&S homes category. When DD National’s prime time news share was 92 per cent, a private channel that described itself “sab se tez” with just 4 per cent share was declared as number one channel by TAM.” In his article, he narrates how the manipulation has been done by the vested interest. He also expresses a deeper concern. “The manipulation does not involve just financial fraud, but a bigger crime of fraud on the people’s right to know the truth, which the media is morally and legally bound to provide, instead of fake news and manufactured hate narratives”.
As far as Hindi and Urdu newspapers are concerned, they did not take up the issue seriously. Some Hindi newspapers even avoided naming the Republic TV in its lead headline. One possible explanation for this is that they do not want to touch the Republic TV, which is seen close to the establishment.
For example, Pioneer, Hindi (New Delhi, October 9, p. 1) had the following front-page lead headline “TRP Rating Game exposed” (TRP Rating Game khel ka pardafash). Amar Ujala (New Delhi, October 15, p. 1), similarly, did not mention the Republic TV’s name in the lead headline: “The Racket involved in boosting TRP with money busted” (Paise dekar TRP badhwane wale giroh ka pardafash). In its reporting, Amar Ujala wrote that a racket has been busted and four people have been arrested. It also mentioned the names of ‘Fakat Marathi’ and ‘Box Cinema’. However, the reference to the Republic TV was made in passing. Similarly, Rajasthan Patrika (Jaipur, October 15, p. 1) avoided mentioning the name of the Republic TV in its heading. Look at its headline: “Two TV channel owners arrested… illiterates were watching English channel” (Do Channelon ke malik giraftar, anpadh dekh rahe the angrezi channel). It merely said that “Republic TV promotor has been called for questioning”.
The Urdu newspapers did not hide the name of the Republic TV but they also failed to take up the issue. Inquilab (Mumbai, October 9, p. 1) ran the following headline. “Severe allegation against Republic TV and two other channels for manipulating TRP” (Republic TV aur 2 channelon par TRP badhane keliye jalsazi ka sangin ilzam). In its lead headline, Siasat (Hyderabad, October 9, p. 1) wrote “Allegation against three newschanels including Republic TV for fake TRP” (Republic TV bshamul 3 channles par farzi TRP ka ilzam).
Unfortunately, the mainstream media spends much of its time on debating trivial issues. It can make a serious issue a trivia and trivia a national issue. In a democracy, the media is expected to play the role of the spokesperson of the common people. Sadly most of Indian media, champions the interests of the corporate players and ruling politicians. That accounts for its increasing illegitimacy.
To regain its lost legitimacy, it can return to people’s agenda and begin to speak from the common man’s perspective. But the mainstream media keeps taking an easy route. It is trying to artificially boost its popularity. The TRP scandal is a manifestation of the crisis of the media in India. Perhaps it is this shift in priority that accounts for media reluctance to talk about its corruption.
(Abhay Kumar is a Ph.D. from JNU. He is broadly interested in Minority and Social Justice. Earlier, he held a Post-Graduate Diploma in English Journalism from the Indian Institute of Mass Communication, New Delhi, and worked as a Delhi-based reporter with The Indian Express. You may write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org)