Two years ago, afaqs! Reporter ran a cover story on TAM Media Research, 'Everybody's Favourite Punching Bag'. What a perfect headline that was became evident once again over the weekend when Multi Screen Media, a major network with nine channels, said that it would no longer subscribe to TAM data. The research agency confirms that Times Television Network (TTN) and NDTV too have sent in requests to unsubscribe from the service. At the time of filing this report none of the other national networks, including Star India, Network 18, Viacom 18 or Zee TV confirmed taking similar action. The situation is nevertheless fluid.
A new debate
The first big eruption against TAM occurred in 2002 when Zee TV unsubscribed for a few months. The argument invariably has something to do with the sample size or the methodology. Last year, NDTV took the company to court over its research practises.
This time round, the provocation seems to be different: broadcasters are unhappy with the outcome of TAM expanding the universe to include LC1 towns (with a population of less than one lakh). Many of the channels have started seeing a drop in ratings. TAM reasons that the viewing habits of these markets don't coincide with those of the urban markets. Broadcasters complain that the ratings are erratic and unacceptable.
Of the agency's annual revenues, which are in the range of Rs 60 crore, the bulk comes from subscriptions by broadcasters. So, if most of the networks stop subscribing to TAM data, the research agency will definitely experience a huge financial blow. However, it has financially sound parents, Nielsen and Kantar, both research groups, and it will ride out the immediate storm.
The question is: what happens now? TAM is the only acceptable measurement currency in the business. If it is rejected, what will be the basis for buying and selling television time?
A highly placed official at MSM says that "we don't endorse the ratings coming from TAM any more. So, we will sell on the basis of our own expectation of our programmes. The pricing will be decided based on what we feel is the premium that the content can command."
Sam Balsara, chairman and managing director, Madison World and a widely respected figure in the business confirms that despite the tussle, 'Madison will continue to take its decisions and make its recommendations based on data received from TAM.'
Media agencies are getting squeezed between the warring parties. Mona Jain, CEO, Vivaki Exchange, describes the predicament. She explains that by unsubscribing from the service, the channels are effectively resigning from the data. This means that they are refusing to be held accountable for delivering the numbers that they had agreed on with regard to long-term deals. Many of these deals are structured on the guarantee of ratings. Jain adds that agencies are under a lot of pressure because while they still have to deliver to clients on the basis of TAM data, some of the broadcasters will no longer take responsibility for the numbers.
Finding a way out
Indian Broadcasting Foundation (IBF) sent out an advisory to the TV channels recently. Shailesh Shah, secretary general, IBF states that members were told that in spite of several attempts, no agreement had been arrived at with TAM and they were free to take stern action if they so wished. He stressed that talks had been going on with TAM for months and the issue of erratic ratings.
LV Krishnan, CEO, TAM Media Research, suggests that the only solution to this problem is dialogue. "We have been providing this service for 15 years. Does the situation require a stand-off like this, to be so aggressive and take the route for unsubscribing?"
It must be recalled that till six months back, all the industry bodies were working together when a unanimous agreement was made on blacking out of TAM data to avoid discrepancies during the first phase of the DAS (Digital Addressable System) rollout. And now, suddenly, the IBF is at odds with the AAAI (Advertising Agencies Association of India) and ISA (Indian Society of Advertisers).
Krishnan points out that TAM can only act if the industry is unanimous in what it wants. He says that if all the three bodies agree that the LC1 markets must be removed from the equation, it can be done too. But the organisations need to agree.
The problem isn't going to go away. Sooner or later, TAM will have to research deeper into India, into even smaller towns and villages where the consumer markets are expanding rapidly. What will broadcasters do then? According to a committee headed by Amit Mitra which gave its recommendations about two years ago, in all 30,000 people meters should finally be installed - today they are just about a third of that.
Meanwhile, the two other stakeholders, AAAI and ISA, have come out in support of the research agency. Both the bodies agree that the industry cannot do away with the currency. Arvind Sharma, president, AAAI and chairman and CEO of India subcontinent, Leo Burnett, says, "We need to sit together, else, each side will keep releasing their own statements. I am not aware of any measurement system anywhere in the world where the broadcasters are entirely happy but a measurement system with some flaws is better than no measurement at all."
A statement by ISA read, 'While some broadcasters have stopped using the current rating system for measurement, as advertisers we support it and will continue using it till another credible measurement system is made available. Any action taken which is detrimental to the measurement system would be detrimental to the industry at large.'
Are broadcasters acting tough because the Broadcast Audience Research Council (BARC), a joint industry body to oversee television audience research independently, seems to be finally getting its act together with the recent appointment of a CEO? Ashish Sehgal, the chief sales officer at Zee Entertainment, says that that is not the case and that the BARC service, an alternative to TAM in that it will be formally overseen by industry bodies, is still some time away.
Balsara too agrees that the BARC data is still a year away. Meanwhile, about the controversial LC1 markets, Balsara feels that "IF (and that is a big IF) the LC1 Data is flawed or unstable, it should be removed."