We live in interesting times. Yesterday there was news that the top filmmakers and stars of Bollywood have filed a lawsuit in the Bombay High Court against 2 top news channels and their key anchors. One anchor happens to be the owner as well. The complaint is against the language used, and the wrong type casting of Bollywood.
The last one week has also showcased a recent alleged manipulation of television audience data that results in unethical, undue advantage to certain channels over others. This would classify as an unfair trade practice and is punishable under law. The beneficiary channel in this case gets a significant larger share of the advertising revenue than it currently deserves. The advertisers are cheated because of the manipulated audience numbers, they park their advertising dollars in larger numbers for actually smaller audiences.
How did this come to light now ?
Previous employer at the Research Agency seems to be the one who let the cat put of the bag. If Television channels are to be believed the research agency had filed an First Information Report with the Mumbai Police. The media pundits would take this with a pinch of salt, as why would the research agency put a speed breaker in its stride; and that too when the chips are down. The answer I am told lies in the timing and the fact that an employee of the research agency has left and he was responsible for this manipulation for profit.
How does this happen ?
A device called a People Meter is connected to your television set with the Set Top Box. The concerned family is given a Remote with buttons for each member of the family. The Modus operandi is that whenever the television is on and who ever is the family member watching; he has to press his button on the Remote. He has to de activate this button when he stops watching. The allegation in this case is that homes were identified and paid a certain amount monthly to leave the television set on with the concerned channel on and with all buttons for each member of the family pressed. The result is that there would be significant spike in viewership for that channel. So when this upsurge in audience ratings happen every week, the Ad Sales staff of the channel highlights this to the advertisers and media planners who in turn park larger advertising rupees in it. This also helps the channel to increase the price for the advertising time in seconds that the advertiser uses. So, in simple terms the channel gets higher revenues than it deserves and the advertisers are cheated.
There are 44000 Meters spread across the length and breadth of India. There are about 1300 in Delhi and about 1000 in Mumbai. Delhi and Mumbai alone would account for half of the total television advertising revenue. So the number of households with these meters is miniscule when you compare India with over 135 crore people and over 20 crore homes.
The Myopic Reason ?
When this alleged scam hit prime time, we saw the character and integrity of two English news channels diminish and hit rock bottom. Both went berserk with allegations without any substance. The owners of the channel were exposed and the language used was highly pardonable. It almost was like 2 Mawaalis fighting naked in a crowded street and spectators spell bound at the “Noora Khusthi” that was emerging. It was toxic coverage and shameful to say the least. However it highlighted a trait called “Greed” This is the new emerging social cancer and the two channels fighting and accusing each other, gave ample proof of this craving. The two channels in the last one week showcased the lows that television news journalism has hit. It was enough to put off sane viewers and their comments on social media demonstrated this pathological hatred that they had for these 2 channels. Any youngster wishing to be a Television news journalist or anchor would have changed plans. This behavior on prime time would not be without good reason. The real remote would be with the masters relishing this mess. The good thing is that 2 sane advertisers reacted immediately and stated they would be off such channels which are acidic in content and have no sense of ethics or decorum.
The Logic and the Timing
For the last 4 months or so a channel has changed character and has adorned the role of a “crusader”. Crusading is always for a Nobel cause, and in this case it was the death of an actor called Sushant Singh Rajput. Before this tragedy there were few who knew him outside the Bollywood circuit. He was a small screen actor who after working hard was getting limited success in commercial films. He was not a sought after star nor was he a heart throb of many. Today his awareness is extremely high, thanks to this crusader channel and its crusading anchors. Day and night, non stop, has been the one sided narrative of how he was murdered. The Hospital that he was taken to after his demise had claimed it to be a suicide. This was later confirmed by the 7 member Forensic Team of the prestigious AIIMS. This upset the channel and their narrative has reflected the uncouthness, the desperateness , and the blind eye to reality. The classic don’ts in television news journalism is that you do not editorialize, you do not come across as opinionated to your viewers. The concerned news channel has only done this and this is most unfortunate for TV news journalism. And all in the name of Crusading for a Nobel cause. The reality is you cannot fool many at the same time and their game is out.
So I asked relevant people in the news business as to why does a relatively unknown actor create such a furore. Nine out of ten answered “ no one would have noticed or bothered if he was not from Bihar”. That is when the penny dropped and I was enlightened in a jiffy. So according to the enlightened , it was justice for the Son of Bihar.
So, the one sided narrative was just one leg of the tripod this posturing was standing on.. …. if mainline newspaper reports are to be believed, there were thousands of fake accounts created to build hysteria around the demise of the actor. Massive promotional campaigns were unleashed . Sound and visual bytes from around the globe were going viral and the concerned channel. I surprisingly even noticed some Chinese women wailing about the actor and screaming for justice ! This was when the channel was strongly propagating “No to Chinese products” !
So what does this momentum of this crusade for the death of a young actor tell us ? It reflects a dangerous trait called “ Greed” . This “Greed for Power” which makes you and the society that believes in you completely blinded . Imagine a society blinded by these beliefs. You would either be with them or against them. There are no shades of “Grey” and this is what media polarization is all about. The default product is “Hate” and once this spreads it is more infectious, and spreads like wild fire.
How do the Advertisers get compensated for this alleged TRP Manipulation?
Its simple. Do a past 26 week trend analysis for all concerned channels that have benefitted. Now that the scam has been spotted, replace the households identified, with new ones in the same socio economic segment. No one should know about the new households identified, and they should sworn to secrecy with severe penalty if they divulge.
Do a weekly viewership analysis for the next 13 weeks for different day parts and then co relate the same with past 26 week average. The variance is the cheating revenue garnered. This revenue client wise can be identified and repaid to ensure sanity and harmony in professional relationships. Regarding the penalty to the channel promoters I am no competent authority, but the guilty should be shamed in mainline and social media; in the same tempo and momentum as their crusading activity depicted.
This social cancer called “Greed” is what we need to be very careful about. It is infectious and grows on you without you realizing. In my book it is more dangerous than the pandemic that India is fighting. If it goes unchecked it will grow to change the social fabric of this nation. India the land of Seekers and the one to give unparalleled wisdom to the world will socially disintegrate to disaster. The Policy Makers need to see this looming threat and make changes in the television broadcasting policy to ensure sanity and ethical decorum for broadcasting news, with strict penalties for violation.
The author is a Planner with over 3 decades of experience and heading media at leading agencies.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors’ and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.