Wednesday, June 7, 2017

NBA vs Republic TV — the pot calling the kettle…?

It was inevitable. It was only a question of who would be first to pull the trigger, and when.
Two years ago, almost to the day, I raised the red flag – even before BARC started publishing data. Asked in a Q&A with The Hoot about the watermarking technology to be deployed by BARC, I had said (in part) the problem with it is that the broadcaster controls the switch. If you’re disgruntled and don’t want your channel to be measured you can simply stop watermarking, and the system will not be able to read your channel. That will distort the picture, and a major network doing that could hold the whole system to ransom.
Last week it happened. All English news channels turned off watermarking, and with that BARC’s ability to measure and report their viewership. All except Republic, that is, which was the cause of the action. The other English news broadcasters want BARC, or someone, to take action against Republic for multiple placements of the channel on distribution networks – having multiple LCNs, as it is termed.[i] 
Let’s rewind a bit.
“He that is without sin among you…”
As Republic was gearing up for launch the word went round in the business that it had acquired multiple LCNs on several distribution networks. Perturbed, the News Broadcasters Association (NBA), of which Republic is not a member, wrote to BARC not to report its data. NBA also complained to TRAI.
Republic went on air on Saturday, 6th May. (Saturday is a good day to launch because BARC’s reporting week is Saturday-Friday and you get a full week of data from your very first week. Data for the week are published on the following Thursday.) Accordingly, data for Week 19 (6th to 12th May) were published on 18th May – and all hell broke loose.
Republic was reported to have had, in its very first week, a 51% share of viewership of English news channels. Unthinkable, and unacceptable.
Times Now, long the undisputed leader in English news, had been widely expected to crash when Arnab Goswami quit. Everyone watched keenly but week after week it remained no. 1, to the utter surprise and frustration of its competition. Then Goswami came back on the air, now as the face of Republic, and – lo! – promptly that channel appeared on top while Times Now slid to second place. Worse, the viewership of Republic was 80% higher than that of Times Now, and twice that of the next three combined. No ifs and buts: Republic was it.
Meanwhile India Today TV also complained, to both BARC and TRAI, about Times Now too engaging in the same practice, of multiple LCNs. Yes, the same India Today which had done the same thing two years ago, when Headlines Today was rebranded and relaunched as India Today. According to a Chrome Data Analytics report at the time, India Today TV was on dual frequencies on each of 70 cable networks, giving it an additional 22% reach. At a cost, of course: by some estimates, 50% over its normal carriage fee.
Nor were they shy about what they had done. Ashish Bagga, CEO of India Today Group, was quoted commenting on it, and expressing his delight with the outcome in viewership and market share. Alas, the glory was short-lived: the channel was no. 1 for one week, before dropping back to its usual place in the pecking order. An expensive, if happy, week.
Times Now did not deny India Today’s charge, only justified it as a “defensive manoeuvre”.
BARC chose to do nothing about either complaint – NBA’s against Republic or India Today’s against Times Now – and for very good reason. They said they were aware of broadcasters engaging in this practice in the past too, and took the position that they “… measure viewership of channels basis their unique Watermark ID, irrespective of the platform the channel is available on or the number of instances within the platform.” And, quite rightly, that “BARC India is not the regulatory body for resolving issues concerning the multiplicity of LCNs for a channel.” Unexceptionable, on both counts.
In fact, BARC’s policy already states that “Regulatory issues pertaining to this, if any, would lie within the domain of the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting (MIB) and/or Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI).”
Reacting to what they saw as BARC’s inaction against Republic, all other English news channels stopped watermarking, thus effectively pulling out of the BARC system and rendering it unable to measure and report English news viewership at all.
Now it is reported that TRAI will conduct an enquiry. Into what and to what end remains to be seen.
Heads, they win; tails, we lose
Matters are now rather interestingly poised. For all the sound and fury the anchors display on their nightly shows, English news is a very tiny genre in the overall context of Indian TV: less than 0.1% of total TV viewership. Even within the news category itself all of English news is only about 8% of the leading Hindi news channel, Aaj Tak – which itself is only about 9% of the leading Hindi GEC, Star Plus.
So what does that imply for the current impasse?
The most important reason for audience measurement is for advertisers to know where to put their money. If the channel or the genre is important enough they manage without data because they cannot afford to miss the audience it delivers. That is what they did during the painful period of transition from TAM to BARC: they bought on the basis of old data.
In this case, though, it’s not just the absence of current data: the whole category has been disrupted. Data up to Week 18 does not feature Republic, while data with Republic is available only for Week 19 and cannot be compared with earlier weeks. So there is, in effect, no data at all.
Nor is English news is central to any advertiser’s plans: it is just too tiny. There is probably not a single media plan in the country which would be disrupted in its absence. That is not to say that advertising on English news is useless: just that it’s not essential. And what it adds to a media plan – frequency, impact and delivering a focused audience – it does at a relatively high cost, getting as it does 22-25% of what advertisers spend on news channels for delivering a tiny fraction of the news audience.
The affected broadcasters are caught in a cleft stick. Unless a knight in shining armour – the government, TRAI or the courts – charges in to their rescue, they have two choices: make some face-saving gesture, get back in, and risk having the Week 19 kind of data again; or stay out and risk advertisers pulling out in the absence of data. While they have acted as a subset of the NBA all of them are also members of the IBF, the biggest shareholder in BARC, and a couple of them are on its board. What they do have going for them is, of course, the clout of the news media, which can often induce matters to take an unpredictable turn.
BARC, on the other hand, is not immediately affected. The largest part of its revenue comes from broadcasters, and of about 900 TV channels in India only 6 are in English news. Their broadcasters cannot afford to pull out of BARC fully because all of them have other channels, for which they need the data.
BARC’s other source of revenue is media agencies, on behalf of advertisers, who can afford not to buy English news. This means the absence of data on English news will not materially affect the value and usefulness of BARC data to its subscribers, and therefore will not affect BARC.
If TRAI does uphold the complaint against Republic and orders it to operate on a single LCN, it is highly unlikely that the broadcaster will snap to attention and comply: they are bound to fight any adverse ruling through all the appellate processes available to them. In other words, whatever Republic is doing or has done is not going to change in a hurry.
For the present, then, BARC is safe, advertisers are unaffected, and it is the English news channels which have something to think about: they got themselves into this situation and they have to dig themselves out of it.
But that is only for the present
What this standoff has done is to expose the weaknesses of the system, the better to be exploited by those better placed to do so.
First, that BARC can be held to ransom. This time it has been challenged by a small genre that does not materially affect it or its other stakeholders, but what’s been done once can be done again: next time by a single broadcaster or a group of them whose absence is keenly felt and forces BARC to the negotiating table.
Second, the practice of multiple LCNs is out in the open. It’s not financially viable on an ongoing basis but is a useful way to get a temporary blip in ratings for the launch of a new show, for example. It distorts the data but BARC will – even if rightly – do nothing about it. So, unless there a law or a court ruling to prevent it, it’s here to stay.
The advantage of a system run by a vendor – like TAM – is that the vendor has no role in the business except to provide data. They are answerable to the industry and the survival of the system depends on their being able to keep the stakeholders satisfied.
On the other hand, the problem with an industry-owned and –driven system like BARC is that the players have interdependent relationships outside of the measurement system and have conflicting stakes in the business. Worse, in the case of BARC the ones being measured not only control the system, but also individually have the power to opt out of it at will. That cannot be a sustainable situation.
BARC as an entity is not responsible for the shenanigans of broadcasters, but those very broadcasters own (60 percent of it) and drive it. They are the plaintiff, judge and jury. Unless it finds a solution outside the judicial system in which affected parties – which would most often be the constituents of its own shareholders – can approach an objective, independent body of third-party experts, the audience measurement ecosystem can look forward to the proverbial interesting times.

First published in The Hoot (, 22nd May 2017

[i] A channel is meant to appear in the programme guide on your TV only once, in the genre to which it belongs, i.e., among like channels. A channel that appears more than once, in different genres, increases its chances of being viewed, because when people surf they come across it more than once, and so could increase its ratings without actually being seen more. This is a questionable practice, but not illegal.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

The Yogi and the Commissar

It’s the season for media biographies, as NDTV and TV18 publish their life stories. If NDTV comes across as self-righteous TV18 is open about its sins of commission.
Book review
More News Is Good News: 25 Years of NDTV, Edited by Ayesha Kagal, HarperCollins Publishers India, 2016, 392 pages, Rs 799.
Network 18: The Audacious Story of a Start-up That Became a Media Empire, by Indira Kannan, Penguin Random House, 2016, Rs 699.
NDTV celebrates its 25th anniversary with More News is Good News: Untold Stories from 25 Years of Television News; and Network 18 marks the transition in its ownership with the unimaginatively (if correctly) titled Network 18: The Audacious Story of a Start-up That Became a Media Empire. To be accurate, though, it is not Network 18 but its previous owners who are marking the transition.
It is interesting how true to type the two books are: the one, self-absorbed and self-satisfied; the other, racy and somewhat breathless.

The man doth protest too much
The NDTV book is high-school-year-book-meets-corporate-brochure. A collection of pieces by employees and associates recalling the wonderful times they have had, proud of and grateful for the privilege of belonging, and with an underlying note of the superiority of NDTV. High professional standards, ethical, principled. It never did anything wrong, and rarely made a mistake.
Prannoy Roy sets the tone in his opening piece. He presents NDTV as the brave victim of a corrupt environment, standing proud, bloody but unbowed, and makes a virtue of the company’s poor performance in both ratings and profits.
Each of the company’s three news channels – NDTV 24X7, NDTV India and NDTV Profit – was once the leader in its genre but has not been for years.  Roy’s contention is that this is so for two reasons. One, because NDTV has refused to prostitute itself for ratings. Two, because the ratings system is not only inadequate but manipulated by unscrupulous broadcasters. To anyone who has known the news broadcasting business in India that is a familiar refrain.
It is not as if there has been just one ratings system in the country. During NDTV’s life as a broadcaster there have been three. First there was TAM. When NDTV began to slide down in TAM ratings along came aMap, which showed it in a much stronger position. So while TAM was the industry standard they switched to citing aMap, slicing and dicing the data to claim leadership.
When, in time, their channels slid down in aMap too they ran a campaign citing three unnamed “major surveys across India" to claim 60% viewership among an undefined audience. Contrary to standard professional practice the ads did not detail where, when, and by whom these “major surveys” were done, or the defining parameters. Coming from a company that has its origins in psephology and counts among its brains trust Dorab Sopariwalla, the senior-most market research professional in India, it seems unlikely that this was out of ignorance or an innocent oversight.
In 2012 NDTV sued TAM’s parents Nielsen and Kantar for $1.3 bn in a New York court on charges of deliberately publishing corrupt and tainted data and favouring rival channels in return for bribes. The claim included compensation for loss of revenue over a period of eight years, the amount on that account reported variously in a range from $680 mn to $810 mn. Calculating even at an average of Rs 50 to $1 for an amount of $700 mn, that is Rs 3,500 crore or an average of over Rs 400 crore per annum in loss of revenue
To place that claim in perspective, consolidated revenue reported in six years to March 2012 (available data), the year in which NDTV sued Nielsen et al, was a total of Rs 2,635 crore, or an average of Rs 439 crore a year, which is about the same as the claimed loss of revenue. In other words, NDTV claimed they lost half their potential revenue because of TAM's shenanigans. How likely is that?
In the event, the New York court dismissed the case and nothing has come of it thus far.
Now TAM and aMap (which had closed earlier) have been replaced by BARC, a ratings provider set up jointly by the industry bodies of broadcasters, advertisers and advertising agencies. BARC data for Week 40 of 2016 (1st to 7thOct) show NDTV 24X7 with a share of 12% is fourth of five English news channels; NDTV Profit with a share of 13% is fourth of five in English business news; and NDTV India is not in the top five in Hindi news. So it would seem all ratings systems are either inadequate or manipulated.
No, wait. There’s hope yet. “Another benchmark is the BARB in the UK, which just came out with their ratings that NDTV 24x7 is India’s Number 1 news channel ahead of Aaj Tak and ABP,” said Vikram Chandra, CEO, in an interview to Impactonnet. Doesn’t BARB measure viewership in the UK, though, not in India? Ah, I get it. NDTV 24X7 is the most viewed Indian news channel in the UK – not quite India’s Number 1 news channel, as Chandra would have us think.
The issue is not low ratings; it is that NDTV can neither improve the ratings nor live with the fact. It does not become a self-appointed moral standard bearer to constantly moan about how unfair the world is.

The Sermon on the Mount
Roy informs us that NDTV operates by what they call (“rather pompously”, he admits) the “Heisenberg principle of journalism”. Paraphrased, it means that for a news organisation profits and integrity are in conflict. “Almost by definition, the path to making profits for a news organization is littered with compromises that change the nature of journalism, often so that it can no longer be recognized as a news channel,” he says, and goes on to describe three: going tabloid; fiddling the ratings; and blackmail and extortion.
NDTV, of course, does none of these reprehensible things, which is why it is not profitable.
Dismissing all Hindi news channels (except NDTV India) as tabloid, Roy contends that advertisers, advertising agencies, CEOs and marketing heads watch only English channels, “so all decisions on advertising rates and expenditure are based solely on the number of eyeballs, not on the quality of the channel, because nobody has watched any Hindi channel.” Unlike the UK, he says, where a quality media vehicle gets “a much higher advertising rate per eyeball than a tabloid”, in India it does not.
Again Roy conveniently, and disappointingly, ignores the facts.
BARC reports that in Week 40 of 2016 Aaj Tak generated 164.58 million impressions; Times Now, 1.34 million; and NDTV 24X7, 331,000. If advertisers were to pay all of them the same rate per 1000 impressions – as they logically should – NDTV 24X7 should earn a price per 10 seconds that is 25% of what Times Now does; and 0.2% of what Aaj Tak does. Roy knows far better than I do what kind of rates each of them gets today, but I have no doubt NDTV 24X7 gets far more than the number of impressions would warrant.
NDTV’s lasting contribution to Indian broadcasting – not just news but all broadcasting – does not find a mention in the book: the infamous placement fee which financially crippled Indian broadcasters, including NDTV, and continues to.
For the uninitiated, in the old days TV distribution used analogue technology, which offered limited bandwidth. (Remember when you had no set top box and the channels showed up on your TV in a seemingly random order?) Those with top-end TV sets could receive 106 channels in theory, but fewer than 60 with reasonable (for then) clarity; and at the other end, the rank-and-file could see 11 clearly, and a total of 36 at all. Hundreds of channels competed to buy those positions simply so they could be seen and, obviously, the ones with the deepest pockets got them.
Over time the practice grew to such proportions that for many broadcasters – and certainly for news broadcasters – the placement fee became the single largest line item in their P&L. Distribution became the first priority for the allocation of funds, ahead of content and salaries. While the biggest networks – Star, Zee, Sun, Network 18, Sony – got into the distribution business themselves, cutting their own costs and making money to boot, all but the big five have been bleeding for years.
Digital technology will put an end to this extortionate practice, which is why the cable trade has resisted the efforts of successive governments and continues to stall digitisation in large parts of the country. That is the reason for those syrupy ads on TV sweet-talking viewers into getting a set-top box. No government can afford to arm-twist cable operators, who are politically important at the local level, so they keep pushing the digitisation deadline (now it’s 31st December 2016) and cajoling viewers.
It is widely believed in the TV business that the initiator of this practice was NDTV, and there is enough anecdotal evidence to support the belief. One view is that they did it to prepare for and support the 2005 launch of NDTV Profit, going up as they were against the entrenched CNBC-TV18. But a key NDTV player of the time, who was in the thick of it then, told me years afterwards that it was earlier, to ensure the visibility of their channels prior to their IPO in April 2004.
For all his protestations, Roy goes on to accept that “on balance our news media and its ‘soft power’, both television and print, have been working for democracy.”  But, he cautions, we are hurtling towards a regulatory cliff, and that is when governments try to take control. “…the time has come once again to fight any encroachment by the government and to act before it is too late,” and, later, “…any changes in the media environment must be initiated and guided by journalists, in dialogue with the judiciary, not with or by the government.”
Instead of these and other similar broad statements about the way things should be, it would have been good to know what Roy and his colleagues have done about these issues. Leadership means walking the talk, not just sermonising.

Missed opportunity
The rest of the book is detail. Vishnu Som’s piece Reporting Under Fire, reminiscent of the writing of John Simpson, stands out for actually sharing the experience: the trials and tribulations, the frustrations, the limitations, and the triumphs. That is the kind of first-person inside story you want to hear.
Barkha Dutt, who must have much to share, has only her script for a show she did to mark the tenth anniversary of her Amanpour moment, her coverage of the Kargil war. Amusingly, the script is reproduced in its entirety, complete with marginal notes and directions like these:
-          “Start with an abstract close-up – a flower, a bit of a stream, and not a mountain long shot”
-          Bite – Vishal, brother of Vikram, doesn’t speak very clearly – so have to see if this works”
-          “Slow-mo shots of us looking at mountains together”

You’re left wondering whether this is due to vanity or simply poor copy checking.
The book is a missed opportunity – for the reader, if not for NDTV. This is not just any 25-year old company. It is a company that was in the forefront of one of the biggest, most fundamental changes this country has seen, without which democracy was a joke.  A couple of pieces recalling the clunky, makeshift operations of the old days are interesting and amusing, but there is regrettably little by way of insights, or of sharing of what must have been the excitement – sometimes heady, sometimes tense – of pioneering private news television in the country in the teeth of paranoid regulation.

Network 18’s mea culpa
If the NDTV book is about what’s wrong with the rest of the world, the Network 18 book is a confessional: “a story of brilliant ideas, severe setbacks, naked aggression, spectacular victories and fatal flaws”, as a cover blurb describes it.  Written – very competently – by Indira Kannan, a former Network 18 journalist, it obviously has the full approval of Raghav Bahl, who also holds the copyright to it. 
The rise and fall of his empire was fraught with questionable practice, but with Network 18 now behind him Bahl has nothing to lose on that front and tells it – or lets it be told – like it is. Detractors and those in the know will inevitably have different versions of incidents, but to the outsider this is a dramatic story candidly told.
Bahl in his foreword writes with angst about losing control of Network 18. “With such enviable achievements, why do I still ask, ‘Did I succeed?’ Because I eventually lost control… A far more important question than, ‘Did I succeed?’ for any first-generation entrepreneur is, ‘Why did I fail?’ I can answer that for myself with hindsight candour. It was a lethal mix of hubris, unrealistic ambition fuelled by reckless debt, and the misplaced belief that I could tame any crisis.”
It is creditable that up front he takes full responsibility for the denouement. There will no doubt be those who question the detail, but it is unlikely anyone would argue with Bahl’s ownership of the outcome.

Adventure and misadventure
The tie-up with CNN was quite a whodunit in itself, starting with pulling it out from under NDTV’s nose. Full credit is given to Haresh Chawla for the whole gutsy, brazen process from the idea to the closure, and to the surprising, little-known role of Subhash Chandra in facilitating it.
The launch and success of Colors – now the no. 3 channel in India, after Sun and Star Plus – is a story of guts and glory. NDTV Imagine, Real and 9X had been dismal failures. Why would there be room for yet another Hindi GEC? Colors set out to be big and pulled out the stops in content, distribution and promotion. It started with big shows, upped the ante on distribution – the broadcasting industry was agog with whispers about how much they spent – and invested heavily in advertising and promotion.
But, as I wrote elsewhere at that time, it is not enough to have the resources. It needs the risk appetite to put money, careers and reputations on the line, and then the energy to fight every single day to keep your place at the top of the league table. Chatting to Haresh Chawla when the launch of Colors was imminent, I remarked about the huge amount of money they were known to be spending. “Paise to phir kamaalenge,” he said. “Izzat ka kya hoga?” (“We’ll earn the money again, but what about the loss of face if we fail?”)
For all its successes Network18 lurched from crisis to crisis, most often of its own making. Having never been known to take time off, “In 2007, finally, [Bahl] would take leave – unfortunately, however, it was of his senses…” Global Broadcast News had had a madly successful IPO, but ambition, impatience and liquidity make a deadly cocktail. Even while deep in debt, between 2009 and 2011 TV18 managed to raise Rs 1,000 crore in equity. “Stuck in a deep hole,” Kannan writes,“[they] had managed to get their hands on a 1000-crore-rupee ladder…. Instead of stepping on the ladder, Raghav and his managers decided to widen the pit.” And so instead of paying off their debt they blew up the money on Homeshop18, Firstpost, and a new Hindi movie channel.
That, says Bahl, was when they lost Network18. What happened later (borrowing from Reliance and their conversion of the debt into equity) was, he says, only the singing of the dirge. In his narration of the process of losing control there is no rancour, only regret. He takes full responsibility for what happened, and says Reliance did nothing more than they were entitled to within the framework of his agreement with them.
In the course of its growth from a production house to a media empire, Network18 developed a highly questionable ownership structure. Each time they launched a new channel – CNBC Awaz, CNN-IBN – they set up another company and stock analysts complained that Bahl was syphoning off value from TV18. Bahl blames “outrageous” rules regarding foreign equity, because of which the only way to get each licence was to launch another private company, off TV18’s balance sheet, but equity analysts don’t buy that argument.

Nikhil Vohra, CEO of a venture capital fund and one of the first analysts to follow TV18 and Indian media stocks, says the complexity and opacity of the group’s structure were unwarranted. “It is completely untenable to suggest that it’s the government which forced them to do what they’d done,” he is quoted as saying, and that investors “just lost complete faith in what Raghav was doing”, diminishing the company’s ability to raise equity and forcing Bahl to support the business with debt.
Asked earlier by Shuchi Bansal of Mint (in an interview published as an appendix in the book) what his compulsions were to sign the Reliance deal, Bahl says, “We were in a classical debt trap. Our market cap had come down to Rs 400 crore; our debt was Rs 2,000 crore plus. So a debt to market cap ratio of 5. We would not have survived.” But the debt trap was not something that happened to them: it was of their making.
Bahl does say that in terms of delivering value to shareholders the company was an ‘absolute and abysmal failure’, and that, “None of these analyst things would have happened if we had actually put the shareholder first.” Too little, too late.
Ironically, a company built on a foundation of reporting and analysing business and the stock markets was sinking because of some of the worst practices of listed companies: opaque structures, syphoning shareholder value, and a cavalier attitude to public money. It was this attitude that led to many infractions such as buying Infomedia without due diligence, or going into huge contract negotiations without legal advice.
All credit to Bahl for letting it all hang out, for taking the responsibility, and for letting his views on many issues be presented as just that: as only his views, along with others which don’t necessarily agree with his, including, on the Indian Film Company fiasco, his sister’s. While that has its place, though, it doesn’t detract from the rights and wrongs of what he did, by commission or by omission.
What Kannan has written, and Bahl has authorised, is much more than the biography of an entrepreneur or of a broadcasting network. It is instructive reading for any entrepreneur,  and indeed for any CEO, whether owner or professional. There are of course lessons in what Bahl did – the boldness, the risk taking – but the more valuable lessons, perhaps, are in what he did not or did wrong, not just when a rookie entrepreneur but even at the height of his high-profile success. The latter is scary, and a warning to every CEO.

Different strokes…
The timing of the two books is fortuitous, enabling as it does an illuminating comparison of two leaders, of two organisations, following a path much the same in many ways and at about the same time but in two very different ways and with very different outcomes.
Interestingly, these books come hard on the heels of the publication earlier this year of the autobiography of Subhash Chandra, perhaps the original television trailblazer, from yet another background and with yet another personality and style.
For those interested in television, especially for those who have been associated with the business and have known the players, this has been a year of rich reading. But, among all of them, the Network 18 story stands out for the important messages it holds for anyone who runs a business.
Note: Title from Arthur Koestler, The Yogi and the Commissar (1945). The Commissar, at the materialist end of the spectrum, uses any means necessary, while the Yogi's emphasis is on ethical purity, not on results.
Disclosure: As a news broadcasting executive the author competed with both NDTV and Network18 across genres of news. He was also associated with TAM as a member of the TAM Transparency Panel.
First published in The Hoot (, 20th Oct 2016

Monday, August 3, 2015

Like the curate's egg: good in parts

Review of Behind a Billion Screens, by Nalin Mehta (Harper Collins India, New Delhi  April 2015, 312 pages)


Nalin Mehta has been an academician and a journalist. This book has been researched by the academician and written by the journalist.

The academician is most evident in the extensive, painstaking annotation: 53 pages of end notes to support 221 pages of text. The early account of the ills that plague news television is sound, balanced and pragmatic, and later in the book Mehta presents an excellent historical perspective of broadcast regulation in India, right up to the present day. The detailed exposition of self-regulation is also well-informed and instructive, and makes a good and valid comparison of the functioning of the two bodies, the News Broadcast Standards Authority for news and the Broadcast Content Complaints Council for entertainment. For all this the book is a must for anyone concerned with -- and about -- the management of television broadcasting in India. 

But the journalist in Mehta is irrepressible, and dominates the discourse. That would be no issue, if this were not a journalist with an agenda, characterised by sweeping statements, sometimes bordering on the irresponsible; specious use of data; and ignoring inconvenient facts to make a point. The 10-page introduction by Uday Shankar, CEO of Star TV, sets the tone: the book goes on to represent Star TV’s world view, with Shankar extensively quoted and frequently referred to throughout, and numerous examples cited of Star’s bold, innovative, far-sighted moves worthy of a leader.

Speaking of news TV ownership and describing in some detail how Zee built its news network, on the other hand, he comments that, “Zee’s business moves were not ideological.”  That may well be true, but not a mention is made of the origins of Star News – the sweetheart deal with NDTV and the split; the attempt to structure a company with Vir Sanghvi, Suhel Seth, et al; how it ended up with ABP; and how Star News became ABP News, whereby hangs a tale.

The author is at pains to establish that the big TV networks are not as big as we might think, and asserts that they are disadvantaged with respect to buyers of advertising time. “70% of all media expenditure in India is controlled by only five media groups…. On the sellers’ side, however, fragmentation rules. There are more than 800 TV channels….” The numbers hide more than they reveal, as is often the case. What we are not told is that the Big 5 are present and strong across all genres of TV, and bundle their weak properties with the strong ones (and why shouldn’t they?), so that ultimately the two sides, buyers and sellers, are ranged across the table as countervailing forces. There’s nothing wrong with that, but the point is that the big networks are quite well, thank you very much: it’s the long tail of hundreds of small and stand-alone broadcasters that continues to writhe in agony.

On the subject of distribution, and of digitisation, Mehta seems confused. Citing unattributed data, he says that in the period 2005-11 distribution costs more than tripled but subscription revenue barely increased, with the result that “the net money that channels made from subscriptions in this period actually reduced by almost half”. That’s amusing, because it means broadcasters were, or are, net earners from subscription. Here are the facts.

Of 832 ‘permitted’ satellite channels in the country some 250 are pay channels. The rest, being free-to-air, only pay carriage fees: they earn no subscription revenue. Of the 250 that do, about 140 belong, directly or indirectly, to the Big 5 networks, and they (fewer than 20% of the total) are the ones who are net earners from subscription. For the rest subscription revenue only subsidises their distribution cost. Not much for the big boys to complain about.

One of the reasons why the big networks are net earners is of course that they own properties no cable operator can afford not to carry. The other is that they themselves have distribution interests: each of them owns and influences, directly or indirectly, every link in the distribution value chain: content aggregators; multi-system operators (MSOs); local cable operators (LCOs); and DTH platforms. And Reliance, which now owns the TV 18 network, will soon own a national 4G network. Oddly, Mehta omits to mention that. On the contrary, he laments that broadcasters are not allowed to handle distribution. That may well be the law, but surely Mehta knows the reality. So why does he try to make the case for distribution?

Mehta’s use of data is often suspect. Trying to establish the rapid growth of the Internet, for example, he says, "In 2013 Internet access in India overtook print to become the second-largest sub-media sector in revenue after television." Later he decribes how one brand, Parle Hippo, used Twitter, to show how “social media is upending the way marketing was traditionally done”.

First, in comparing internet access to print he is comparing apples to oranges, which you don’t expect of one with his background. Internet access refers to the money people pay to service providers to get on to the internet: that's not revenue for content providers, and there is no equivalent of it in print. In advertising revenue, however, which can be compared, the PwC report of 2014 (which he cites to make his point) estimates Internet at Rs 29 billion and print at Rs 146 billion.

Second, having said how big the internet has become and that social media is upending the old ways of doing things, he says in a later chapter that, “Internet penetration in the world’s largest democracy remains abysmally low,” and quotes data from the same PwC report to make the point.

Mehta's strongest invective is directed at TAM. (Disclosure: this reviewer is a member of the TAM Transparency Panel.) 8 or 10 pages of a one-sided view are peppered with loose statements like, "The trouble is that the ratings system in India has been terribly flawed for too long”; “The ratings system is so discredited that no one believes it”; and, "Senior broadcasters whisper darkly about WPP, which owns 50% of TAM, also owning a significant number of advertising agencies," betraying  his bias.

Listing the issues with TAM, he describes how some years ago 500 journalists were covering the Lakmé India Fashion Week in Delhi even as there was a spate of farmer suicides in Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Karnataka. How that is the fault is the ratings provider is not evident. Among the limitations he lists is that, “In a world where an average TV consumer in a big metro spends over three hours daily on her smartphone, the ratings don’t provide a measure of what is happening in the digital space.” Where in the world do TV ratings do that?

Speaking of digitisation, the author says that no other country’s market has shifted to digital so fast. In terms of adoption of the technology, that is no doubt true; but in terms of the consumer benefiting from digitisation, certainly not. Digitisation is not merely about getting a sharper picture: until consumers are able to choose what they want to watch, and pay only for that, there is in effect no difference between digital and analogue cable. Local cable operators (LCOs) stand to be the big losers, which is why they have been stalling the change and continue to, and it is their intransigence that has prompted the government to postpone the next phase of digitisation to the end of 2015. It’s curious that Mehta skips lightly over this situation and pronounces satisfaction with its progress. Is it perhaps because big broadcasters too stand to lose from digitisation and don’t want to see it progress any further? This is one subject on which broadcasters and LCOs have the same agenda.

The work he has put into the book is evident and commendable. Between his earlier India on Television and the present book Mehta probably knows far more than anyone else about Indian television today. Regrettably the evident inconsistencies and biases call the book into question despite its merits.

Published in The Hoot ( on 27th July 2015

Monday, July 6, 2015

Modi must talk to the people instead of at them

The stark contrast was apparent as soon as the Lok Sabha election results came in and the BJP got into government formation mode. Journalists long used to being in you-heard-it-here-first mode had, strangely, nothing to report. “No leaks” was the lament. 

Then on his first international trip, Prime Minister Narendra Modi dumped the customary media contingent and took only journalists from Doordarshan and a news agency to Japan. He held no press conferences, choosing to bypass the mainstream media and reach the people directly through social media. For a year now, journalists have complained that their access to the government is limited. So complete has the blockade been that the Editors’ Guild of India issued a statement reflecting its helplessness and chagrin. 

In the absence of anything but controlled information, though, the Press is happily following the PR script. They faithfully and uncritically report and repeat catch-phrases (“Less government, more governance”; “There is only one holy book: the Constitution of India”); and breathlessly build up the big orchestrated events, starting with the rock concert at Madison Square Garden. So far, so good. There is a word for what the Editors’ Guild described as a “top-down, one-way interaction” with the media: propaganda. The question is, how far will this propaganda approach work? 

Having a majority in Parliament gives the illusion that the majority of the country wants you. But its winning 52% of the seats does not mean 52% of voters wanted the BJP. In fact its 31% vote-share was the lowest ever for a majority party, the previous being 41% for the Congress in 1967, when it too won 52% of seats. Further, it is not that all 31% actually prefer the BJP. The people who vote for you are of two types: ‘base’ and ‘swing’ voters. Base voters are your loyalists; swing voters are those who are undecided, perhaps right up until they cast their vote. They voted for you, but they are not convinced. As in marketing anything, you must ring-fence your loyalists and woo potential switchers. In politics, that means converting the swing voters between now and the next election. And as any student of communications must know, it’s not only what you say: at least as much, it’s how you say it. 

Brendan Nyhan, of Dartmouth College has been running experiments to answer a simple question: do facts matter to voters? And the simple answer is, no. Our political judgments are immune to facts that contradict us. Worse, throwing ‘facts’ at people only makes them cling more tenaciously to their beliefs. Anup Kumar, an academic who studies the relationship between media and politics, says in a piece in The Hoot, “… media and politics feed into each other but in the absence of politics on the ground a media campaign alone will not change outcomes. … it is the ground campaign … that comes first.” 

And why is that relevant here? Because 10 months after the Lok Sabha election, in which it won all seven seats in Delhi – from none in 2009 – the BJP was routed in the Delhi assembly elections, winning just 3 seats of 70 – from 31 in 2009 – while the Aam Aadmi Party won 67. BJP campaign strategists had come to believe in the myth of the power of a media blitzkrieg at the cost of ignoring the success of an effective ground campaign of the kind they waged in 2014. In the social media too “AAP had more engaged interactions … which encouraged open deliberation, while the BJP had more of a bandwagon approach – follow the great leader.” That approach may show apparent results, but ‘likes’ and followers are routinely bought. 

The BJP’s social media skills were tested when Modi engaged with a Chinese audience on Weibo. “The move may have worked for Lady Gaga or Justin Bieber, but it didn’t work for Modi,” says Fortune. He wanted to talk about the Buddha’s birthday and a new era of Asian harmony, but the Chinese public “went straight for the jugular, with thousands of ordinary citizens taking Modi to task over territorial claims,” Fortune reports. 

For all the media volume it has occupied over the last year and more, how effective, then, is the BJP’s – and Modi’s – awesome PR machine? In terms of dominating the discourse, extremely so: in terms of winning potential switchers, doubtful. The evidence is in the 10 assembly elections held after the huge Lok Sabha win: four governments formed, of which three in coalition, and a rout in Delhi. 

There is only one way to get people to exercise free choice in your favour: persuasion, not propaganda. In politics the ‘seller’ must influence ‘buyers’ who don’t consciously assess their choices but address them with bits and pieces of information that they patch together in their heads to create their own sets of beliefs and perceptions. They are aware that the outcome is much bigger than them, and they don’t individually influence it or expect to. 

The Indian electorate has shown time and again that, disparate and dispersed as it is, it can exercise its collective choice with amazing consistency. There are still four years to go for the big one, and many assembly elections in between. Time to shift gears and start talking to them instead of at them.
First published in Impact (

Saturday, May 30, 2015

The new TV ratings system has drawbacks too

“The problem with BARC is that this measurement system is controlled by those who are being measured.” The Hoot talks to CHINTAMANI RAO about BARC which has begun delivering metrics to broadcasters and media buyers.
BARC is here. Does that take us closer to a more satisfactory audience measurement system than TAM, in your view? And if not why not?
That BARC – or any vendor – is here cannot be an assurance of anything. The proof of the pudding is in the eating.

Do you see any improvement over TAM ratings in the metrics that the new measurement system has produced so far?
So far, no: mainly because this is household level data. What that means is, BARC data as of now tells you only what a household is tuned into: not who in the household is watching. That’s of precious little use in media planning and buying. It is okay for testing the system and settling it down, but viewer level data is the table stakes. Until you have that you aren’t in the game. So for the purpose of media planning and buying BARC data is not yet useful.

Will BARC be able to deliver better value to advertisers and media planners?
In principle there is no reason why it shouldn’t. But my concern as an industry observer, and one who has been deeply involved with the subject, is that this measurement system is controlled by those who are being measured.

BARC was intended to be an equal-stakes venture of three industry bodies. But finally broadcasters have 60% of the vote, while the other two constituents have only 20% each. In effect, those whose performance is being measured hold sway: they don’t need the support of the others to do pretty much anything.

BARC was set up because the industry decided it didn’t want a vendor-driven system. It has traded that for a broadcaster-driven system. How that is better is for the advertisers and their media agencies to judge.

What are the implications and advantages of watermarking?
I’m not qualified to compare technologies, but there are two limitations I’m aware of.

One, the broadcaster controls the switch. If you’re disgruntled and don’t want your channel to be measured you can simply stop watermarking, and the system will not be able to read your channel. That is not good. It will distort the picture. If I am doing market research on shampoo, for example, and am asking sample homes which brand of shampoo they use, I don’t want Brand X deciding that it won’t allow its consumers to reveal themselves. A major network doing that could hold the whole system to ransom.

Two, it is expensive. Small, single-channel broadcasters, of whom there are hundreds, will find it hard to afford. Other technologies don’t require anything of the broadcaster. So it could result in a partial picture, with data only for participating channels.

The universe from which the sample was chosen is the same as MRUC’s IRS. Is this a satisfactory universe, and if not why not?
Considering the question mark that hangs over the IRS, I would worry about it.

The sampling is 20,000 households going to 50,000 in four years. Do you think that the sample will be sufficiently scientifically chosen to represent 160 million households satisfactorily? It is just double the earlier sampling TAM did, which was pretty small. 
First, the question of sample size. We are always concerned with sample size, perhaps because it is easy to grasp.

People generally think what matters is the relationship between the size of the universe and that of the panel. That seems reasonable, but statisticians will tell you that a panel of 10,000 correctly representative of its universe will be as good a measure whether the universe is, say, 10 million or a billion. What matters is not the relationship between the size of the panel and the size of the universe but that between the size of the panel and the smallness of what it is trying to measure.

When TV audience measurement started in this country the media world was relatively simple. There were few channels; TV was mainly entertainment; the most advertised products were fmcg, mostly targeted at women, 15-44, SEC A-C. That was a broad measure, for which the then sample of perhaps 4-5,000 homes was adequate.

Over time not only the number but the genres of TV channels grew; the range of advertised product categories widened to include financial services, auto, mobile telephones, consumer durables, … and, correspondingly, the audiences targeted began to include different demographics. So now you were measuring smaller and smaller channels, in relation to more finely defined audiences.

And the TAM sample grew, too. Decision point: as you add more homes, should you cover more towns or increase the sample size in current towns, i.e., cover more towns thinly or cover fewer towns in depth? That depends on what you seek to achieve. I remember when news broadcasters asked TAM not to increase the geographical spread of its sample because more towns covered would mean more carriage fees.

Of course you can increase the sample in both width and depth of coverage, but someone has to pay for it. There’s no free lunch.

Second, BARC is starting with 20,000 meters, representing all markets. 70% of the meters will be urban: that’s 14,000 meters representing 71 million urban TV households spread across more towns and further down pop strata, compared with TAM’s 10,000 meters representing 61 million in Class 1+ pop strata.

BARC will also represent 82 million rural households with 6,000 meters. If sample size is an issue, how can that be even remotely representative of a universe as culturally diverse and geographically dispersed as rural India?

Yes, it is meant to go up to 50,000 meters over time. But that’s an intention, and eventually someone has to pay for it. If they do, and if it happens, wonderful.

But, as I said, it’s not just about the sample size: that’s simply the easiest handle to grab.

BARC will be using the National Consumer Classification System instead of the socio-economic one. Please explain this and tell us what its advantage is?
The Socio-Economic Classification (SEC) system came about in the late 1980’s on the initiative of the Market Research Society of India (MRSI). The object was to find a better predictor of consumption behaviour than household income, which was commonly used until then. The reason is obvious: two households with similar incomes don’t necessarily behave alike with respect to consumption. So what is it about them that most influences consumption behaviour?
The MRSI did research to determine what parameters best indicated the propensity to consume of a household, and concluded that it was a combination of the education and occupation of the chief wage earner (CWE). That made sense intuitively, too.
The SEC was adopted starting with the National Readership Survey (NRS) of 1988. Some 12 or 15 years later users began to question its relevance, and Media Research Users Council began to consider a new SEC structure. In 2011 MRUC and MRSI introduced the new system, the NCCS.
The NCCS is based also based on two parameters, one of which is the education of the CWE. The other is not occupation, as it was earlier, but the number of durables owned by the household, from a list of 11.
There are all kinds of analyses to show why and how the NCCS is better. But to my mind it is terribly left-brained, the work of technocrats. If the purpose is to classify households according to their propensity to consume, we must look for indicators of their likely behaviour. Ownership of durables is manifest behaviour: they consume lots, so they must have a high propensity to consume.
The SEC system is more stable. For a household the parameters change slowly over time, and if they do change then that’s a result of a life change. If the CWE has acquired more education or upgraded their occupation that will definitely lead to a higher propensity to consume, so their SEC should change.
In the NCCS, on the other hand, if a household that owns one durable today bought two more next year its classification would change. Over time all households will own more durables, so everyone’s classification will change. That doesn’t make sense to me.

Do you think that the fact that BARC segregates the functions of data collection, analysis and reporting between three independent agencies will make it less prone to misuse and lead to more dependable metrics?
The practice is not unique. It is followed elsewhere in the world, too. There’s no single right way to do things. In the end what matters is panel and data security. The biggest problem is not misuse of the reported data: it’s before the data is reported, i.e., panel tampering, so the fewer the people or agencies involved in that process, the better.

In the end everything can be violated if you have a mind to: think of 9/11; think of 26/11. We can only try; and we can take deterrent action against those who are caught, to discourage stray thoughts in that direction.

The expectation is that a better designed system with more sampling will lead to news broadcasters at least reducing sensationalism and being less driven by one big eyeball grabbing story. Is that a realistic expectation?
I’m afraid, not. News broadcasters do what they do not because the measurement system is imperfect but because that’s what they do. Do you think Times Now will be quite happy to show up as no. 2 to CNN-IBN because – thank God! – we at last have a sensible measurement system? They will continue to push frenetically to maximize their score, whatever the scoring system.

What is the sense you are getting of the industry response so far to BARC – from broadcasters, advertisers and advertising agencies who are all represented in it ownership?  Or is it too early to tell?
It’s too early to tell.
So far the advertisers and advertising agencies are playing ball. The advertisers have agreed to do without data until BARC is able to supply it. They spent huge sums on the IPL after planning with individual-level TAM data, and are evaluating it either with household-level BARC data; or with the previous season’s TAM data; or not at all. That’s amazing.
I can’t imagine what’s motivating them, but evidently getting BARC going is important enough to them to risk hundreds of crore of their advertising money shooting in the dark at a moving target.
Published in The Hoot ( on 29th May 2015

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