Burning Issues: “BARC-ing up the wrong tree?” Republic TV and how BARC India works

melt, August 4, 2017

Let’s face it. You may like him. Or you may not. But you CAN’T ignore him.Yes. I am talking about Arnab Goswami, once the mascot of Times Now’s brand of aggressive journalism, and now the face of Republic TV. For the past month or so, he had promised to return to our TV screens soon, and all the ads we saw gave the impression of an impending storm. And boy, did the storm arrive! But if you had thought the noise would be limited to TV newsrooms, well, think again!

Let’s face it. You may like him. Or you may not. But you CAN’T ignore him.

Yes I am talking about Arnab Goswami, once the mascot of Times Now’s brand of aggressive journalism, and now the face of Republic TV. For the past month or so, he had promised to return to our TV screens soon, and all the ads we saw gave the impression of an impending storm. And boy, did the storm arrive! But if you had thought the noise would be limited to TV newsrooms, well, think again!

It all began with BARC India publishing the viewership figures for Republic TV’s debut week. As it turned out, Arnab had lived up to the billing: Republic TV garnered 52% of English News viewership (in the relevant TG), or as Arnab put it — more than all other channels put together. While his channel went to town with those numbers, the competition chose to react in an entirely different (I would say “immature”) manner. First they cried foul, and then, in the evening, put out full screen announcements that they were “exiting the BARC India measurement system”.

By next morning, all English news channels had switched off their watermarking — the ‘ink’ on the basis of which BARC India identifies and measures a channels viewership. So what was their grouse? And what happened in the week that Republic TV launched that changed the world altogether for the protesting channels?

Let me give you the inside track of what actually happened. A few days before the data for the week in question was to be released, the News Broadcasters Association (NBA) wrote to BARC India, asking it to hold back release of Republic TV’s data. The NBA represents interests of some (not all) news broadcasters. In its letter to BARC India, NBA accused Republic TV of indulging in “malpractices” to garner higher viewership, and hence argued that BARC should either hold back the channels data, or release it with a rider.

By “malpractice”, NBA meant the use of dual/multiple LCN on several networks by Republic TV in its debut week. NBA claimed that with the use of multiple LCNs, Republic TV would get a bump up in its ratings, and that would be unfair to others in the genre. What NBA conveniently covered up is the fact that in the same week, there were several of its member broadcasters indulging in the same activity. Some of these channels were from the same group that were backing the NBA challenge to Republic TV.

Now anybody who is in broadcasting knows that almost every channel does this, or has done this, to improve their visibility on occasions like channel launch, high profile news events etc. There are several documented instances from the past — so let’s not go down that road.

BARC India replied to NBA explaining the measurement aspect of Dual LCNs. It reminded the NBA that its measurement system & technology (that industry as a whole had adopted) did not monitor instances of a channel within a platform’s EPG. Ergo, channels that were viewed were measured and reported, not individual positions of the channels. This is a position that BARC had explained to NBA on several occasions earlier, and NBA had accepted that in the past. BARC reiterated that its position remained the same as earlier, hence it would be obliged to report week 19 data in totality as per its mandate.

What is intriguing is that if NBA already knew BARC’s position on Dual LCN, why did it approach the body again in Week 19? Why did NBA (and a few of its members) cry foul now? Clearly, this wasn’t coming from the body, but from some channels who feared losing turf to the new kid on the block. They resorted to setting up of what can best be described as “nontariff  barriers”. They misused their position within NBA and decided to fire off from NBA’s shoulders. Unfortunately this created a public perception of this being a BARC vs NBA matter, helped by some motivated and slated reporting by media, while it was, and remains a proxy war over ratings.

As a joint industry body, BARC did the right thing by keeping itself at an arm’s length on the matter, this time, as well as whenever it cropped up earlier. It has in fact put in place a fair policy (available on its website), and treated all broadcasters the same, on the basis of that policy.

Next lets tackle the question of legality and ethics. Is placing a channel on dual/multiple LCNs wrong? Is this against the law? Before anyone takes the moral high ground, let’s remember that this is entirely a regulatory issue. It is for a body like TRAI to rule whether this is an unacceptable activity, and then ensure that no one indulges in it. And if NBA (and its constituent news channels) really stand by their commitment of “Self-Regulation”, why haven’t we seen them enforce it among themselves? Why hasn’t the NBA come out with a statement condemning such activities, and committing that none of its members indulge in it. So far there has been a deafening silence from that quarter.

Another point to remember is, just like in the case of any FMCG product that buys number of shelves in a supermarket to improve visibility, channels use landing pages and multiple LCNs to improve their visibility. This, for long has been a strong marketing tool used by channels at the time of revamp or launch.

Finally, lets tackle the matter of hard data. Figures don’t lie, so let’s see what they say. The case that some English channels have made, that by using dual LCNs, Republic TV has got an ‘artificial and inflated spike’ in its viewership. And that Republic’s viewership data in its debut week points to several “anomalies”. Without getting into the “everyone does it” debate, let’s check these claims against the data that stares us in the face.

The chart below shows that the viewership for Republic came from many markets and wasn’t skewed to a few. What’s also interesting is to see the channels from where Republic TV drew viewership in week 19. For purpose of uniformity, let’s consider the TG: All India, 2+

The two tables show how maximum number of viewers moved from Hindi News genre to Republic, thus showing a de-growth in viewership. Amongst the English news channels, we see a growth in viewership of Times Now, NDTV and CNN News18. So yes! Some viewers did spill over from India Today television (leading to 4% de-growth), BBC World News and News X.

So what worked for Republic?
There are two aspects to it. One is the amount of time spent by Arnab Goswami (the face of the channel) on the channel, as compared to the other anchors. Also the content aired on the channel garnered eyeballs. Let’s take a look at what worked on the top 2 English news channels in week 19:

The TV viewership data released by BARC India is in sync with the social media trends as well. As per reports, while Republic TV generated about 2.61 lakh tweets at 1.21 tweets per follower, Times Now generated 86,000 tweets at 0.01 tweets per follower, since the launch of Republic TV. This, when Republic has a follower base of 2.41 lakh which is 3% of Times Now’s 7.4 million followers. Republic has been very aggressive even on Facebook, garnering close to 4.5 million views as against 2.4 million views generated by Times Now.

While broadcasters are busy mud-slinging at each other, the real story, for me is to see the rise of this new channel — Republic TV. Has the channel lived up to what it had promised? Arnab before the launch of the channel had said, “It is a fight between David and Goliaths” (Referring himself as David in this fight). Has David defeated Goliath? Or is it just the initial buzz, which could die down in the coming weeks? Have the news channels and the body representing them, reacted too soon? These questions would be answered in the coming weeks, however, for now Arnab who was seen in hoardings all over the country has become a household name (thanks to the media coverage on the entire issue). He has got the eyeballs and the controversy has led to more interest in him and the channel. Reacting in haste, a few English news channels pulled off BARC India system: A system of which they are a part of. What has this pulling off led to?

The competition has given publicity to the new entrant, leading to more interest and this could mean higher viewership for Republic TV. Two, the English News genre data in the coming weeks will see greater difference in share of viewership between Republic TV and the other channels. It should be noted that week 20 will see data for Republic from 13–19 May, while for the other channels, this data will be for the period (13–18 May). Week 21, will see no presence of these channels in the genre and this can impact their business. Three, advertisers use ratings as the currency to trade on. In case of these channels, no data could lead to pulling off advertisers as well. While, I am sure that these news channels that have pulled off will come back in the system, the reaction has exposed their weakness. What the next move will be, only time will tell.

Ghastly, the anonymous author of this article, or how we'd like to call him, is an insider with extensive knowledge of the way BARC works. Burning Issues is a series from the printed edition of Melt Magazine, where we look at pressing issues within media & marketing in India, broken down by experts into stories we wouldn't know otherwise. To subscribe for Melt Magazine or for any of our older issues, email [email protected]