What Prompts This Rush To Reinstate TRPs?

It’s Lohri today and an auspicious day. On this auspicious day comes a government directive to the measurement and rating agency BARC, to resume ratings with immediate effect. The BARC site and home page say, ‘Transparent, accurate, inclusive, TV audience measurement system.’

In a meeting with government officials on 16 December, BARC CEO Nakul Chopra had asked the ministry to consider giving the agency more time since it would want to get all its stakeholders on board and then need 10 weeks lead time to resume ratings. The question is – Why has the government rushed into this decision now despite that request and directed BARC to resume TRPs at the earliest?

The BARC Chairman is Punit Goenka. The BARC board includes N. P. Singh of Sony, Shashi Vempati, who is CEO, Prasar Bharti, K. Madhavan of Star and Disney India, Bharat Patel, former CMD, Procter & GambleIndia, Sunil Kataria of Godrej, KalliPurie, Vice Chairperson, India Today Group, Jayant Mathew of MalyalaManorama, Anupriya Acharya of Publicis and Shashi Sinha of IPG Brands withNakul Chopra, an industry veteran, as the CEO. Nakul Chopra was appointed after Sunil Lulla stepped down.

The question is, considering that the BARC had sought more time at the 16 December meeting, how come the Union Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (I&B) has decided to direct BARC to resume ratings with immediate effect on 12 January? It has also directed broadcasters to release the last three months’ data in a monthly format for fair and equitable representation of true trends. The ministry has also set up a working group under the Chairmanship of the CEO of Prasar Bharti for the consideration of leveraging the Return Path Data capabilities for the use of TRP services.The ratings had been suspended for a year post the rating row. What has changed since then? What needs to change now? The question to ask is, why the rush to resume ratings now? Who does it help? There are broadly five stakeholders here, the news broadcasters, the non-news broadcasters, the advertisers, the viewers and let’s say, the fifth one is the government.

Even though this bit of information cannot be confirmed, it is believed that the I&B Minister had called the I& B Secretary and asked him to issue the order “ASAP”. Is this a political decision taken by the government with the elections in the key states of Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Uttarakhand due over the next 30 days? There was an unspoken divide amongst broadcasters on whether to resume the ratings ASAP or not. The view to get the ratings back seems to have prevailed.

The quality of content on news channels has broadly remained unchanged over the last year. It was continuing on established programming formulas and tested means. However one can say with confidence that the shrillness of the content had subsided. The content had become better, as the pursuit of ratings was no longer the only objective. The rates of advertising were broadly secured on past performance and brand strength and historical data.

Does this new development get the news channels to compete with one another as in the past and make the content shriller and more divisive? In fact, former I & B ministers of this government have advocated not having TRP or ratings for news channels. That has been advocated in the past as a panacea for improving news channel content.

Will the content on news channels become loud, shrill and queer the pitch for the anchors and the spokespersons? Will issues that polarise opinion in every way dominate news coverage?

In an interaction with me more than a decade ago Baba Ramdevhad said TRPs are “tatkalin rashtrapatan” (destruction of the nation). It does seem that his prognosis was not wrong.

The story of the threat to the Prime Minister’s security has died out over the last four days. Is it fair to assume that had the ratings been determined while it was being aired, the story would have played out over at least a week or ten days? Instead, the story of MLAs quitting the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Uttar Pradesh is now being aired on all news channels.

Is this a way to get the narrative back? Is this a way to divide media again and rule it even more effectively?

The budgets from political parties for news channels in particular and digital channels in general, for the next 30 days are huge. Will this measure also help the political masters get a better bargain from the news channels?

These are indeed, poignant questions to ponder on.

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