"The time has come," the Walrus said,
"To talk of many things:
Of shoes - and ships - and sealing-wax -
Of cabbages - and kings -
And why the sea is boiling hot -
And whether pigs have wings."
-- Lewis Caroll, Through the Looking-Glass
First, a disclaimer: I hold no brief for TAM, or for any company or industry body. Also, I have no knowledge of the alleged corruption in the TAM system, and neither am competent to comment on it, nor wish to.
In all that is being said about the ills of the audience measurement system, a lot remains unsaid, as broadcasters and other stakeholders look over their shoulders when they speak. Having led broadcast networks as well as media agencies and been in the leadership of industry bodies, I too have debated the issues and heard the arguments. But I have no skin in the game anymore, so I don't need to be circumspect.
The rumblings began, or at least became audible, in 2005, when MRUC called meetings of advertisers, broadcasters and agencies in Mumbai and Delhi, and initiated discussion on the shortcomings of TAM. But these were only crib sessions: they proposed no action plan. Much heat was generated; rhetoric indulged in; tea and samosas consumed; and everyone went back to business as usual, crunching TAM data to do media plans and deals.
I said it then and I say it now: if the industry is a victim, it is a complicit victim.
That TAM is inadequate for the current context and marketplace is perhaps inarguable. But broadcasters and agencies have been using data that they say is inadequate and inaccurate at best, and manipulated at worst, to further their business: to direct the spending of clients' money. That is over Rs 60,000 crore of TV ad expenditure in the seven years since 2005, when MRUC initiated the discussion (basis: PwC estimates). That this is the only data available is no argument: that's like saying, "I know I'm lying: but I don't know the truth, so let's go with the lie." So who is the victim? The advertiser, I should think.
The biggest point of contention has always been the sample size, and everyone has their own prescription. I am no market researcher or statistician, so I cannot comment on what the sample size should be, but it is clear that currently it is inadequate for the large and complex market that India is.
TAM as we know it was the result of the merger of two systems: TAM and INTAM. They were created at a time when the media world was simpler. The big advertisers were FMCG marketers; most brands addressed females in the age group of 15-44 years; and most programming was entertainment. In that simple world, TAM as a broad measure was perhaps adequate. As channels and genres of content proliferated, audiences got fragmented and newer categories began to be advertised, addressed to other, more sharply defined audiences. The need for finer measurement grew but the system remained the same, buffered now and then by some increase in sample.
And what did the users do? Sliced and diced the data at will, ignoring the fact that they were dealing in dangerously small samples.
Broadcasters use TAM data not only to negotiate and sell specific deals to advertisers and agencies, but to advertise themselves, too. Every news channel runs ads claiming to be No.1, on some day and time of its choosing. And they do worse than split hairs. Consider the fact that English news has, on an average, 0.1 per cent share of total TV viewership. If a channel with 23 per cent share claims to be the leader because it has a two percentage point lead over the next one, that's a difference of 2 per cent of 0.1 per cent of TV viewership - based on a notoriously inadequate sample.
Is English news viewership really so tiny? Perhaps it isn't. Perhaps this is a reflection of the inadequacy of TAM. But you can't use the data to show off your prowess on the one hand, and question its veracity on the other.
There have often been discussions, formal and informal, with TAM and among user bodies, on the need to increase the sample. The problem is no one wants to pay more than they already are, though they want more than they are getting.
About a year ago, the NBA demanded that TAM release news viewership data monthly instead of weekly. They somehow positioned this as being in the public interest, and mustered government support for it. Thankfully, the idea sank - under the weight of its own sheer ludicrousness, perhaps.
In March 2012 at FICCI Frames was announced, amid much applause, the formation of the Broadcast Audience Research Council (BARC). An industry initiative to develop a robust, user-driven audience measurement system, BARC brings together the industry bodies of the three key stakeholders: broadcasters (IBF), advertisers (ISA) and advertising agencies (AAAI). Part of the announcement at Frames was the much-lauded bringing aboard of the AAAI, by the other two.
At last, a welcome step in the right direction? Yes, except that the three bodies first met about six years ago, and in time formed BARC as an equal three-way partnership. Nothing seems to have happened after that except that two years ago, AAAI was thrown out, for reasons that remain unclear. And nothing seems to have happened since, except the announcement at Frames and subsequently, IBF accusing its 'partners' of delaying the process.
So it appears, sadly, that the industry bodies of the three stakeholders cannot together find a solution to their single biggest collective problem. Finding fault is not enough. Either manage the current system or change it - now.
(The author is a strategic marketing and media adviser).