Back in 1860, the French philosopher-diplomat Joseph de Maistre said, “Oute nation a le gouvernement qu’elle mérite”1. Every nation gets the government it deserves. After several years of involvement with media measurement, I am tempted to paraphrase that quote as “Every medium gets the measurement it deserves. Do Indian media have the measurements they deserve?
But before we answer that question…
Numbers and counting have been with us for 4,000 years. We cannot make sense of an idea or an object unless we attach a number to it. Camp Nou is a massive stadium. How massive? It can accommodate over 99,300 crazy Barcelona FC fans. The reservoir behind the Guri Dam, Venezuela holds 135 billion tons of water. Mumbai’s Modak Sagar holds a mere 75 million. Donald Trump got 304/538 votes in the electoral college, thus winning the US Presidential Election 2016. Google has 1 billion unique users every month. You could add a thousand such data points to this arbitrary list. Measures of volume often convert readily into measures of value. Thus the South Pars gas field in Iran with 35,000 km3 of recoverable reserves is worth an eye-popping $5 trillion dwarves India’s KG-D6 which holds a mere 260 km3 which is worth a mere $37 billion and change.
Such numbers and values are markers of every marketplace. Every product or service that wishes to be transacted must concur on a common ‘metric’. Evidently, a seller has an incentive to inflate the worth of his own product. This makes it imperative for all sellers to appoint an independent measurement body, enjoying broad trust, that acts as an arbiter for the specific class of products.
The newspaper is the single ancestor of all the media that we are familiar with. (I hear OOH mavens pointing to adverts found on the walls of Pompeii from 79 A.D. and we will get there too). By the turn of the 19th century, America’s Association of National Advertisers felt the acute need for an agnostic system to report newspaper circulation. The American Audit Bureau of Circulation (ABC), now known as the Alliance for Audited Media was incorporated in 1914 becoming the pioneer of similar efforts in other jurisdictions. Our own ABC has a proud history dating back to 1948. For three decades after its incorporation, Indian advertisers and publishers were perfectly content with audited circulation as the industry’s yardstick. The advent, in the late 1970s, of our first National Readership Survey, the NRS I marks a fin de siecle for media measurement in India. With this exercise, the attention shifted from what the (media) producer was producing to what the consumer was consuming. Consumer research, and not producer audit has, since that watershed, been the (more or less) consensus yardstick for media sellers, buyers and intermediaries. Perhaps this is a particularly sweeping generalisation, but the strife and struggle that punctuates media measurement in India is largely on account of media producers’ mistrust, even distrust, of the principles, methodologies and entities involved in measurement.
How does one measure media consumption? Does one have to go to every single household and determine the media consumption habits of all its members to ascertain what is viewed, heard or read by them? Thankfully, Statistics obviates such mammoth, prohibitive undertakings and offers affordable, compact ways to skin this gigantic cat.
Over forty years post NRS I, where does India’s media measurement stand?
Measurement systems broadly fall into two governance frameworks.
i. The ‘vendor owned and/or managed’ model requires a research vendor willing to invest in designing, building and administering the system.
a. The system arises when a vendor sees profit potential in offering the measurement service.
b. Investment is kept to the barest minimum at which a viable service may be provided.
c. Every user is a potential customer but has little or no control over the deux ex machina that propels it.
d. A vendor may provide a simulacrum of customer involvement by setting up a forum for consultation/advice.
e. All predecessors of BARC in TV audience measurement fall in this category.
f. Decision-making is simple, being driven largely by commercial considerations.
ii. The ‘joint industry body/joint industry committee (JIB/JIC)’ model requires participants in the industry to create a common-cause framework for governing measurement.
a. ABC, the Media Research Users’ Council (MRUC) and Broadcast Audience Research Council (BARC) are all JIBs.
b. Investment is designed to be commensurate with the measurement outcomes sought by stakeholders.
c. Typically established as not-for-profit companies, their incorporation documents allow no dividend distribution. Surpluses are ploughed back into the furtherance of their objectives.
d. Users are involved in and have continuing oversight on, every stage of the process.
e. Decision-making involves achieving consensus at every stage across contending or even conflicting interests. This may slow things down.
Measurement ― Economic Multiplier
Trustworthy measurement systems become great force multipliers for drawing in investment and spending. Stock indices are an excellent example. SENSEX and NIFTY are now seen, in India and abroad, as telegraphic signals of the health and prospects of the Indian economy. Reducing the impossibly complex macroeconomic picture to a single number creates innumerable opportunities for investors and speculators. While it is trivial to talk about the impact of media yardsticks on advertising expenditure, their capital investment multiplier aspect bears some examination.
i. Media measurement is incomplete without classifying and quantifying the consuming audience. It is not enough to know the total number of people who consume a newspaper or a TV station. We must know their age, gender, socioeconomic status, geographical location and household structure to understand their motivations, likes and dislikes.
ii. Often, the ever-evolving picture of audiences reveals investment opportunities. News was just another type of content on a general interest television station until viewers’ behaviour revealed loyalty and engagement and triggered a spinoff — the news genre.
iii. Starting with just three languages: English, Hindi and Tamil, in the early 1990s, India’s television smorgasbord now caters to almost all the languages specified in the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution.
iv. The continuing expansion of India’s print media is now driven solely by growing rural literacy and discretionary incomes. Urban markets are saturated or even shrinking but media studies map the emerging interest in the hinterland and drive new investment into editions, presses, bureaus and marketing initiatives.
Characteristics of good measurement systems
• Fidelity: Good measurement systems are able to accurately mirror the ebbs and flows in the object of measurement. SENSEX would be a feeble, indeed useless, instrument if its trends bore no relationship with the underlying economy, or at least the component represented by publicly listed stocks. If measured readership goes up when all signs point to decline, the measurement yardstick becomes unusable.
• Integrity: The methodology, fieldwork, analytical model and every aspect of management and governance must stand up to exacting scrutiny. It is important to remember that ‘Integrity’ in this instance is definitely not in the sole province of the administering body or JIB. Every stakeholder must eschew actions intended specifically to compromise the system.
• Continuous development: As media markets develop, the variables that require measurement change too. As consumers shift to more media consumption on personal, digital devices, measurement systems must evolve to keep pace.
Enlightened (or just?) Self-interest
• Time horizon: Media measurements are statistical artefacts, not oracular pronouncements. As such, they are subject to random variations that are, thanks to the power of Statistics, well understood and operate within specific bounds defined at the design stage. While a particular measure might report with a daily, weekly, quarterly or annual frequency, it is the trends and directions that the number series reveals that provide the best insight and most reliable guides to action. Unfortunately, the law of perverse incentives applies here too. Users are often rewarded for producing favourable blips over the short term even as medium and long term consequences are overlooked.
• Mala fide interventions: Interviewers can be lured into faking interviews. TV measurement panel homes can be bribed to tune to specific stations at particular times. Marketing and distribution initiatives can specifically target areas being measured to inflate performance during the measurement period. Poorly secured databases of audience data can be hacked and overwritten. I am not making up scaremongering scenarios here. India’s TV industry has a long history of paying for distribution in specific geographies. This is not merely because they are where the prosperous consumers live but because those geographies are known to house metered homes. A leading light of the general entertainment genre began life, to great ratings fanfare, by paying for replacing the then category leader on the very frequencies that it had been occupying in cable networks known to be ‘metered’. If brute economics and not evolving consumer preference is able to impact measured viewership, the yardstick is compromised. While managers at the beneficiary channel would have been applauded for their instant ‘success’, each such moment actually constitutes an aberration. If aberrations accumulate, they can debilitate, even demolish the measurement system.
• Recalcitrance: Haven’t we all heard the story of the spoilt child who, in the face of challenge, picks up his bat and leaves the playground? While this behaviour must be readily condoned in an actual child, it does not behove adults participating in a competitive industry. In recent days, we have witnessed ill-conceived measurement boycotts in television that represent the worst possible, lose-lose, outcome. This is not a first. For years now, readership measurement in India has been hostage to a few intransigent participants who will only accept the system if it declares them winners.
And the messenger is shot. Every time.
Measurement does not have valence. A yardstick is neither good nor bad. It is either accurate and reliable or it isn’t. A TRP or GRP is a consequence, not a cause. When TRP or AIR (readership) is blamed for the declining standards of entertainment or for shrill, tabloid journalism, we are misreading causality. This is now the popular view, however, and everyone from a campaigning politician to a self-appointed expert on social phenomena will vilify measurement as the great evil. Have we lost the ability to see the value that reliable measurement offers, even when we are debating media content quality or its impact on social mores?
I would like to offer a higher-order model for understanding the relationship between content evolution and measurement. Mathematics has a class of functions called time-dependent stochastic processes. In the simplest terms, these are functions that evolve with time. All media measures are stochastic. Every round of measurement reveals audience behaviours favourable or unfavourable to particular items or aspects of content. Content makers use this as input in designing the next round of content aiming to dial up features that appeared to attract audiences and dial down those that didn’t. An observant reader will notice that this a universal phenomenon. A farmer will repeat a crop that brings him good prices and discontinue one where prices are falling. A marketeer will line-extend a successful brand and trim or even withdraw a declining performer. However, this wisdom is scarcely evident in the way media measurement is received.
And it is always the messenger who gets shot.
All doom then? Or is there a silver lining?
If there is a single feature of the economy and society we inhabit that makes me sanguine about the future of media measurement it is this. All activity in every sphere of human endeavour is becoming subject to more accountability than ever before. Governments are held to account by their electorates. Business leaders are answerable for profitable growth. Health care services must show patient wellness outcomes. And anyone involved in any way at all with the media, as creators, sellers, analysts, intermediaries, buyers or service providers, must answer for box office receipts, advertising/subscription revenues, stadium fills and so on.
Love it or hate it. Media measurement is here to stay.