The TRP scandal has shook the television news industry to its foundations. The industry has come a long way from the days of state monopoly over news and has no one else to blame other than itself for the current sorry state. The TV news industry is expected to cover news and analysis with an element of objectivity and it has clearly fallen short of expectations — not surprising considering that India’s news channels aggressively chase a small pie of the television advertisement revenue, with most of the ad spend being cornered by general entertainment channels.
The TRP game started with the opening up of news broadcast to private sector. Private entrepreneurs established 24×7 news channels and followed a revenue model dependent on advertisement revenues. As expected in a democratic country, there is no direct state control over the content aired by news channels. The industry is self-regulated through bodies such as News Broadcasters Association, Broadcast Editors’ Association and News Broadcasters’ Federation.
When I was serving as the Director General of Doordarshan (2009-2010), the public broadcaster had 21 free-to-air channels including two national channels (DD News and DD National) and 17 regional satellite channels, 11 state networks and specialised channels like DD India (international channel), DD Sports, DD Bharati, DD Urdu and DD Kisan with a viewership close to 600 million. The two years I was at the helm, DD was the second highest revenue earner that could fund its recurring expenses.
The issue of content was a concern even then. During a meeting of Industry promoters / CEOs, I presented the revenue model of Doordarshan. DD had most of its revenue coming from DD (National), an entertainment channel with specified slots for news bulletins and news-based discussions. The specialised channels and regional channels were expected to meet revenue targets assigned to them. What was unique in the DD model was that DD News and its regional versions were not given any revenue target, but were asked to focus on content and quality of presentation. That was the time when high definition broadcast was introduced in India.
The incident narrated happened more than a decade ago. But the DD experience may be still relevant in India. The news channels may need to shed their revenue model, which is dependent heavily on ad revenues. Today, the TRP (Television Rating Points) published by BARC (Broadcast Audience Research) is used by channel managements and advertisers to fix ad rates and volumes for each channel.
The TRP system has inherent limitations in terms of sample size (only 40,000 over 20 crore TV sets), distribution of sample skewed in favour of metro cities and urban areas in general make it a less reliable measure of the popularity of programmes. (BARC, September 2020 — https://barcindia.co.in/measurement/television-audience-measurement-description-of-methodology.pdf) The failure of separating the collection and processing of data is another drawback of the TRP system. The sample needs to be truly representative of the country’s population and the sample size needs to be increased manifold.
The TRP pressure on news channels has forced them to become entertainment channels to catch more eyeballs. The relevance of audience measured for TRPs and its distribution across the country are in doubt. Channels are engaging in unethical practices to manipulate TRP data as the Advertisement Council of India and its partners use the tool.
What makes the decade-old DD model relevant even today? The business of news television is not commercially viable unless it is cross-subsidised by other channels from the group. There lies the relevance of publicly funded channels, which are respected source of news in several developed countries. There is a need to free news channels from the pressure to generate advertisement revenues and allow them to do their job of providing impartial news and objective analysis to their viewers.
(Dr Aruna Sharma is a development economist based in New Delhi. She is a former secretary, government of India.)