Nothing confidential about it

By , agencyfaqs!, na | In Advertising | September 05, 2001
A fresh round of allegations on tampering of television ratings by compromising sample households has brought the issue of the veracity of TRPs on centrestage

agencyfaqs! news bureau

Perhaps it's Chintamani Rao's (President, Universal McCann) observation that sums up the day's event most succinctly: "At this point in time, an agency's standing in the industry is gauged by whether it has The List or not."

The list in question is a revelation in itself. It is a carefully stapled sheaf of papers - which reached the agencyfaqs! office on Tuesday morning neatly packed in a white envelope - containing what is supposed to be highly confidential data. One, the list of the households on TAM's peoplemeter panel running into four pages. Two, another nine pages on INTAM's peoplemeter households. And finally, a 19-page analysis on recent TRP trends, what it implies, and how it can be manipulated to suit a particular channel (STAR) and a particular production house (Balaji Telefilms, makers of Kyuki Saas Bhi).

The same data would have landed up at the CNBC (India) office around the same time. The channel broke the news at 10.00 am, and followed it up with some mindboggling footage of 12 households on the TAM and INTAM panels, as CNBCI reporters went ahead to validate the data via a random check. It was to signal the start of a very exciting day.

As it turned out, most of the big agencies in Delhi and Mumbai had got the list either by an unsigned email or in one of those big white envelopes. By the end of the day, there were enough people questioning the veracity of television rating points (TRPs) to jolt almost everybody concerned into a fresh round of introspection.

But why did the list suddenly become a big issue? The 'leaked' data was about 600-odd households - and in Mumbai only. And it's not as if this was the first time somebody was questioning the basis of an industry research. It happens in soft drinks every summer, it happens among print companies around the NRS-IRS season.

The answer probably lies in the high stakes involved in the TRP game.

TRPs are the single most important determinant for the Rs 4,000-crore worth of advertising that flows into the coffers of TV channels every year. Between the two rating agencies - AC Nielsen's TAM and ORG-Marg's INTAM - there are 7,220 peoplemeters across the country that capture and measure audience-viewing patterns. These peoplemeters are nothing but electronic data capturing devices for registering the number and kin (age/sex/demographic) of people watching TV programmes. agencyfaqs! has learnt that between the two ratings agencies the annual losses on this exercise add up to Rs 4 crore. But there is an interesting caveat here.

In a recent move, Dutch media house VNU, which owns a majority stake in ORG-Marg, bought over AC Nielsen globally. The merger talks are underway in India since both the agencies are not making any money whatsoever. Thus, if the rating system is going to be one, who stands to gain from undermining one rating agency or the other - or, for that matter, the entire TRP system? Who orchestrated the white envelope propaganda?

"It is incredible stuff, and I am shocked," said a visibly disturbed Anshuman Misra, MD, (India and South Asia), Turner International India. Most other channel heads were unavailable for comment; agencyfaqs!'s calls to STAR, Zee, Sony and Aaj Tak proved futile. So were the ORG-Marg and AC Nielsen brass - probably trying to grapple with the immensity of the situation, between appearing on CNBC with their part of the story. The official line at both these research outfits was, "We have to investigate the situation first."

"Oh, that's not good enough," says a Delhi-based media specialist. "Something might have gone wrong at the field level, not any higher up, but I do feel the system is vulnerable. For a long time there's been this rumour about some hanky-panky going on there. Irrespective of the size of the data that has been leaked, the fact is somebody has broken into the system. And that demolishes the security setup at both the agencies. Why can't an AC Nielsen, that has been doing television rating surveys globally for years now, put in similar checks and balances in India as they do in other markets? There is something called 'coincidental testing', which is done randomly to check on the faithfulness of the panel members. Who knows if it's done here? My question is: why aren't the same standards of security followed here?"

Rao of Universal McCann feels all the stakeholders in the ratings game - be it the research agencies, the advertising agencies or the advertisers - have to share the blame for the chaos. "There is supposed to be a technical committee that validates the data. It seems the committee hasn't met for 15 months. We, as agencies, are also to blame. We have never asked questions like why hasn't the committee met for 15 months? Who has validated this data? And who are these guys on the TAM/INTAM panel anyway? The agencies have traditionally accepted what has been handed to them. Which is ridiculous given the money involved."

Concurs Gopinath Menon, media head at TBWA

Anthem, Delhi, "Agencies spend a lot of money to buy this data which is like Bible to us it's absolutely sacred for media planners. Around Rs 5 lakh is spend every year in sourcing the information. So if the insinuations by CNBC are true, it puts a question mark against the credibility of the organisations like ORG-Marg and AC Nielsen."

Appearing on CNBC, Ashok Das, president of ORG-Marg INTAM, defended the security processes in the INTAM report by saying, "The panel is not static. It's not as if the households remain the same for 10/15 years. We retire about 20-30 per cent of the households every year and add on fresh ones." In an earlier interview to Business India, Das had said that INTAM follows a system of procedural checks supported by 'periodic parallel day-after' random surveys on a rotational basis so that there are no anomalies. At the same time, he had added that these anomalies normally surface when a channel figures it is doing badly vis--vis its nearest competition. "After all, the entire adspend bandwagon is based on TRPs."

All said, there is no proof to suggest either the TAM figures or the INTAM data has been tampered with, as indicated in the research incorporated in the ubiquitous white envelope. To quote Sam Balsara, chairman and MD of Madison, and a key figure on Advertising Standards Council of India, "Somebody is jumping into a conclusion here. It is one thing to say some data, which is supposed to be classified, is out in the public domain and it's another thing to say that the data has been manipulated."

It seems the TRP drama is far from over. In fact, this could be just the beginning of a protracted and bloody battle for the Indian viewers' mental space.

© 2001 agencyfaqs!