ABC of the Times challenge

By Devesh Gupta , afaqs!, New Delhi | In Media Publishing | September 16, 2014
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The Times of India has launched a frontal attack on Hindustan Times, casting doubts on its circulation as well as its readership figures in the National Capital Region (NCR). The offensive may inadvertently revive the generally-ignored Audit Bureau of Circulation (ABC).

The Times of India (TOI) has launched a full-fledged assault on the HT Media's Hindustan Times, questioning its readership and circulation figures via an eight-minute-long video circulated on social media. The 'TOI Challenge' to advertisers and agencies lies in demonstrating that that the TOI outguns HT in every depot in NCR.

While media brands routinely emphasise that they are bigger or better than the competition based on reach or audience profile, it is rare for such a large brand to get into such specifics to put down a rival.

Speaking on the subject, Rahul Kansal, executive president, BCCL (Bennett, Coleman and Co Ltd), publisher of TOI says, "It was high time we spoke strongly about these issues. We have been pointing out the flaws for a long time, but no action has been taken."

afaqs! contacted HT Media for its response but executives refused to comment.

Rahul Kansal

Kansal is pointing to the industry's unhappiness with the Indian Readership Survey (IRS) 2013 which was released in January 2014. A change in methodology resulted in many figures being out of sync with surveys earlier, leading to an uproar. Quiet returned only after the researchers placed the findings in abeyance and decided to relook the way in which the IRS had been conducted.

Last month, after industry bodies agreed, the authorities lifted the abeyance on the report stating that the findings had been revalidated. Evidently, TOI's unhappiness persists.

To bolster its argument, the TOI video claims that of HT's circulation of 10.6 lakh copies in NCR, 26 per cent can be attributed to HT 2 mins, an English supplement which is inserted in its Hindi sister daily, Hindustan. Without this supplement, says TOI, it leads HT by 38 per cent in circulation according to the ABC figures for the period July-December 2013.

Though the findings of IRS 2013 have now been accepted by industry bodies, TOI has used the video to trash the survey and point out that both Hindustan Times and Hindustan have a surprisingly high number of readers per copy compared to their rivals.

The most curious aspect of TOI's new pitch is its emphasis on circulation numbers. Circulation and readership can both be used to gauge a publication's reach but, over the years, the former has faded away while readership is taken as the yardstick in media planning.

Publications are so casual about ABC figures that editions of many large newspapers have stepped in and out of the audit depending on whether it was convenient at the moment or not. BCCL seems to have found virtue in circulation once more. The fact that its newspaper, Vijay Karnataka, has also recently emphasised its respect for ABC, the move seems concerted.

If a smaller group had tried to revive interest in ABC, it would have been laughed off. But when Indian publishing's 800-lb gorilla starts pushing it, the rest of the jungle has to take note.

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