OPINION: BARC India’s autonomy must be respected

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There has been much brouhaha on why Broadcast Audience Research Council (BARC) India has not been publishing its TV ratings despite a directive by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) to it to publish the ratings.

The reportage and approach to the issue on this  seems a little shy of middle-of-the-road, so we got in touch with BARC India, and have the following official statement to share from a BARC India spokesperson:

“To set the record straight, BARC India has not stopped publishing its viewership data. Every week, at 11 am sharp, all our subscribers have been getting all-India weekly data without a hitch for the last 175 weeks, including the last 2 weeks that correspond to the NTO transition.”

“However, we have published data of last 2 weeks with the caveat that there are changes taking place on ground due to NTO rollout due to which viewership numbers will be volatile during the transition period. The India Society of Advertisers (ISA) too has advised its members that our data should not be used for media planning and buying in the transition period.

“We also publish a limited amount of data on our website – intended only for larger benefit and information of trade and media. We temporarily held back release of this select headline data on our website. We did this purely to avoid mis-representation of such data (Top 5 channels/programs etc) without looking at the larger context of NTO rollout and resulting volatility which could be misleading, lead to confusion and be counter-productive.”

“Our position is also aligned to Ministry of Information and Broadcasting Guidelines that govern us. The guidelines clearly say that ‘…data generated by the rating agency be made available, on paid basis, to all interested stakeholders…’. And ‘Sharing of the data/reports with a third party or in public domain be allowed subject to the fair usage policy of the rating agency. Such fair usage policy shall be provided on the website of the rating agency’.”

“TRAI has advised us that we should also consider resuming the display of top channels and programs data on our website. We are taking a considered view on that post consultation with our stakeholders.” (end of BARC India statement)

So BARC India has not stopped publishing TV Ratings; it has only temporarily held back top channels / shows on its website. Ratings are being published every week without fail, and being shared directly with all its stakeholders according to Ministry of Information and Broadcasting Guidelines.

Why should any party be getting into the nitty gritties of BARC’s day-to-day operations? Wasn’t BARC started with autonomous intent? Has there every been any similar precedent for Print and Digital in India? Maybe it’s time BARC just stopped publishing such topline data too, in public, just to put an end to arbitrary interference in its working

Why is TRAI getting into the nitty gritties of an autonomous industry body? In fact, the bigger question is: Should TRAI be meddling with the operations of autonomous industry body BARC India? Wasn’t BARC started with autonomous intent? Has there been any similar precedent for Print or Digital in India?

Also, BTW, BARC India is beholden to only share its data on a paid basis with all interested stakeholders. So should the body stop sharing it on public forums for free? We know the BARC India viewership data is the standard for media buying, and one doesn’t believe its business will be adversely affected if publishing of the data is stopped.

One doesn’t recall TAM publishing such even topline data publicly. BARC had started sharing it for the general awareness of viewers and the smaller players in the M&E ecosystem – actors, suppliers, producers – who could use the basic topline information to their professional advantage, perhaps in negotiations with the bigger players in the stakeholder chains. So maybe it’s time BARC just stopped publishing such topline data too, in public, just to put an end to arbitrary interference in its working.

I believe the complete implementation and rollout of TRAI’s momentous new tariff order is a gargantuan effort that, despite ongoing efforts, is still far short of being achieved, and until the dust has literally settled to present a slightly clearer picture that’s a somewhat accurate representation of the onground situation, it would be unfair to both stakeholders who primarily depend upon BARC India’s ratings to make their business decisions – the broadcasters and the media buyers – to have a half-baked picture cast in stone for media planning, evaluation and media-buys. That would be grossly unfair.

In fact, it was this very concern that had the Indian Society of Advertisers caution its members against using use BARC data for six weeks because pre- and post-evaluation variance will be extremely volatile and highly unpredictable and therefore unreliable. ISA had rolled out an advisory to is members that the change in the how consumers subscribe to TV channels would impact TV viewership data.

“As TV is one of the largest mediums to reach our consumers, we, from the ISA Executive Council and ISA Core Media Committee, have been in an active engagement with BARC Board, Technical Committee and NTO task force over the past few months to arrive at a way forward during this transition period,” the advisory had  said. “NTO is a sudden development and as a result, the ability to predict the impact of this event is extremely difficult. Considering the fact that the NTO is across India, its impact will be significantly different in each region given the varied distribution and broadcast landscape of each region.”

This writer cannot argue with ISA’s explanation that “We will need to give it some time to access the impact. While the panel will continue to be representative during the transition period, however, the viewership data will not be usable given the challenges outlined. It will take a minimum of six weeks to access the stability of the viewership numbers post the implementation of the NTO,” the advisory had said. Logically, therefore, during the transition period, the viewership data  would not be the best metric for media buying.

What surprises me is that while TRAI has — as it should in all fairness —  given end-consumers extra time to make their final channel choices by end March and also help DPOs to migrate their current consumers to best-fit plans, it seems to have dug its heels in in its insistence that BARC India should resume the display of top channels and programs data on its website forthwith. That, at a time and in a scenario where there is uncertainty and tv viewership data is unreliable at best to guide channel popularity and evaluations and media buys. TRAI really needs to give BARC the same leeway it has given consumers and DPOs during the complex NTO rollout.

During the implementation of this new tariff order, TRAI must help all its stakeholders without hesitation or favour. The laudable spirit in which the New Tariff Order was announced must continue. There is no concealment of data by BARC India – its stakeholders are receiving it all, at 11 am sharp every Thursday.

For keeping that up as a truly for-industry body even in these completely uncertain times not conducive to truly-representative viewership data, kudos to BARC India.

Your thoughts, please