One of the great miracles in Indian television is that every new news channel manages to overtake the incumbent market leader in a matter of weeks.
First NDTV overtook Headlines Today soon after launch. Then CNN-IBN overtook NDTV. Later Times Now overtook CNN-IBN. And finally Republic overtook Times Now within days.
The reason for this serial miracle has always been known to industry insiders but closely guarded from viewers: every new channel has learnt to master the distribution game so as to secure ratings.
In fact one of them, CNN-IBN actually had NDTV’s distribution head as its co-founder.
This week when Bombay Police claimed they had arrested of people who were allegedly bribing viewers on behalf of current market leader Republic TV to secure ratings, all the other channels which have been left nursing their egos sprung into action in a fit of sanctimony.
Suddenly, every news channel pounced on Arnab Goswami and his network, and for two days and nights in a row, all the great issues of the world—COVID, China, economy, Haathras gangrape, the US elections—have all been shelved to discuss this sudden discovery.
Aunindyo Chakravarty was a young journalist at NDTV in October 2008 when he shot off an email to the channel’s founder Prannoy Roy of the errors and manipulation in the television audience measurement (TAM) data.
Since then, Aunindyo who was later managing editor of NDTV’s Hindi and business channels, has tracked the ratings system which allows channels to inflate viewership, and fool advertisers and viewers.
In this episode of J-POD, Aundinyo, who hosts a weekly show on the economy for the online portal News Click, discusses the Republic scandal, why channels have no option but fix ratings in a market like this, and why it is probably game over for Aaj Tak.
“Bombay Police case against Republic does not pass the smell test. I don’t think the police has any place in doing this.
“Republic doesn’t need to fix ratings. If it is fixing at all, it is doing so to balance out what others are doing. If Arnab Goswami is rigging, he is counter-rigging because someone else is rigging.
“Even if all rigging is removed, even then Arnab will be No.1. It is his content that is oriented towards revenue, not his ratings. He doesn’t need ratings to get money.
“TRP fixing has been going on for a very very long time. Everyone has done it. Republic TV has gone ahead of others using the techniques that others have used in the past. Anyone can do what Arnab is doing. All they lack is a thick skin.
“People think TRPs are the real number of people watching a channel. That’s not true. TV ratings is not for journalists. They are to be used by advertisers.
“If journalists start looking at ratings and think people are watching them, then that reflects a basic problem in the system. That is what causes this faking to happen, where journalism is revenue driven.
“There are 40,000 meters covering about 170,000 people. A leading Hindi channel will be watched by 9,000-9,500 sample viewers. On the basis of that, we are projecting for 84 crore people in 20 crore households.
“On average, a leading general entertainment channel, say Star Plus, in a 13-week average, will be watched by those in metered homes for about an hour a day, which is normal because two serials take up an hour.
“Historically, proper news is watched no more than 4-5 minutes a day. Most people watch headlines and move on. There is no flipping between news channels, people watch their channel and move to entertainment channels.
“Hindi news is watched for about 15-16 minutes, even a lot of that would be entertainment. When you want ratings, you turn your content into entertainment, because it gets more viewers. It is the basic push every channel, every editor faces.
“If a Hindi general entertainment channel with a 20% marketshare rigs 50 homes out of 40,000 metered homes—approximately 200-210 people—its marketshare will go to 21.5%. For a Hindi news channel, the 20% marketshare will go up to 26%.
“If an English news channel with 20% market share rigs 50 homes for 5 hours a day, its market share will go to 80%. If you just rig 10 homes for 5 hours per day, it will go up to 50%. If you rig 10 homes for 3 hours per day, it will go up to 35%.
“Invariably, English news will get underrepresented because a supposed English viewer’s meter is in the quarter where their domestic help lives. It is not representative of the market; it is skewed by outliers.
“In the old TAM (television audience measurement) days, one viewer sitting in a small town in West Bengal with less than 100,000 population accounted for 60% of the viewership of that channel in that week. It happens all the time, because one viewer who watches a channel for 10 minutes has watched it for 24 hours.
“News channels know that they can’t beat Republic TV. It is politically protected. Its distribution is never going to be a problem. And its content is what viewers will watch even without knowing.
“Viewer behaviour is very unconscious. It’s a lot like social media. It appeals to the vicarious pleasures in us: envy, voyeurism, exhibitionism. News TV viewership is always oriented towards something that can stir your emotions. There is a huge male skew to it.
“Aaj Tak is such a massive brand since 2000. Everywhere you go it is Aaj Tak. It has 50% reach and I think it is an underestimate. When a channel like that gets defeated, it can’t make a comeback. It has been defeated by distribution fixing, and it has no answer.
“Arnab Goswami has made a breakthrough with Republic Bharat and Aaj Tak cannot catch up with it. Republic Bharat has got most of its ratings from Zee News. It has taken Zee News, put it on steroids, and brought it out on the streets.
“Ratings is a combination of 2-3 things. What you put out, if it is entertainment, people will watch you even if they say they don’t watch you. It’s like pornography. Those who watch it are never going to say they watch it.
“The bigger concern is if fixing is taking place at the level of distribution. When a channel is switched off or its audio goes off, viewers think that it is the channel’s transmission that has a problem. But someone is blocking it. You don’t have to do it all over India but in specific markets.
“If Arnab is doing well, and if ratings can be fixed to show Arnab is doing well, everyone is under pressure to do the same thing. By rigging ratings, by blocking transmission, you can turn a media house into a Godi media house.
“The number of meters for TV ratings is not the issue. Government surveys depend on similar sample size.
“I am not personally convinced the ratings system is bad. Ratings should not be given to channels. Journalists should not look at ratings. It should only be given to advertisers.
“We say there is so much choice, but the truth there is no choice. You will see the same news in every channel presented in exactly the same manner. Ratings creates homogeneity of content.
“With digitisation, there is no reason why set-top boxes cannot be tweaked to get data of the kind the TV meters produce. You will have a much larger representative sample.
“If no one is rigging anything, the ratings reflects the public sphere and public culture of today. It is a vicious cycle. The public culture feeds into it and feed off it. I do believe people watch Republic is putting out.
“The ratings game is easy and it is very tempting to do it. When I came in, NDTV India was at No.9. In six months, we became No.4, and No. 1 in Delhi. I did it by using all the tricks of the trade, which is to partly sensationalise, to use visuals which are constantly moving on screen.
“At 9 pm, we used to have headlines, two stories and then we would go to the debate. My ratings were going up at the 8th minute when the debate began. So if I removed the two stories, my ratings went up. Now our ratings started going up at one minute past 9. So I said let’s drop the headlines, and our ratings started going up at 9 pm. No fixing, viewer behaviour.
“If you remove, dharma, astrology and sahu-bahu stuff, and 25% of Hindi news ratings is gone. There has to be strict content rules. It requires an establishment that want to show news, in informing people.
“The economy has done so badly that news channels don’t make money. They barely cover their costs. Look at the revenues of news channels in the last 10 years, it has hardly gone up. Adjusted for inflation, I can guarantee real growth is negative. How do you expect channels to operate? They have no option but to do this.
“If channels were doing well, if a channel could get a revenue of Rs 100 crore of Rs 150 crore, it wouldn’t have to bother about ratings. Channels spend 2% of their total costs on news gathering, 30-35% on distribution, and there are salaries.
“You can get ratings from only two things: by fixing content, which Republic does extremely well, and the other is to be distributed well. If a channel has got decent bandwidth on a DTH operator, if its audio quality is good, and you have good reach, you will get ratings. What can stop you is someone else rigs it.
“Cynical people can subvert every institution. Democratic institutions are inherently weak. Conventions, ethics, morality, social acceptability enable institutions to be upheld or subverted. If TV news is an institution, its subversion is very easy in an undemocratic environment, in a populist environment, and that is what is happening right now and Arnab is making the most of it. That atmosphere will only change if a section of India’s big business, feels that things need to change, democracy has to come back.”