Richard Marks
Guest Article

BARC and TRAI: An international perspective on TV measurement

It’s great that India is having a debate about its measurement system. But, it is equally important that the debate does not undermine the faith of international advertisers in investing in India.

Recently, there has been much debate in the Indian TV and advertising market about the TRAI recommendations for how BARC, the Indian TV currency, should be conducted and governed. A strong currency is vital for the health of the TV market, and it is only right that the parties seek assurance that the way TV and video audiences are reported is ‘fit for purpose’.

As a non-Indian observer, it would not be appropriate to comment directly on the debate that the TRAI recommendations has sparked. However, as an independent measurement practitioner and organiser of international conferences with ASI - where best practice has been discussed and framed for the last 30 years - what I can contribute is a wider global perspective. Hopefully, this can provide a context for the discussions the industry in India is having.

Around the world, whilst healthy debate continues about the relative merits of different techniques, something of a consensus has emerged around the key aspects of an effective currency system.

The measurement system is typically referred to as the ‘currency’ because it forms the basis of a transactional system used to plan and buy advertising. Billions of dollars are at stake around the world. Like any monetary currency, it must command the faith of the market. If its reliability is in doubt, then the whole market suffers, not just in terms of local investment, but also international spend flowing into the country. Big global advertisers want reassurance that there is one respected source of truth to evaluate their ad spend. Protracted debate and doubt worry international advertisers.

A ‘currency’ means one source of truth for what the TV ratings are, not multiple measurements or suppliers, where users can pick and choose which figures to use. Around the world, countries with more than one TV measurement system can be counted on the fingers of one hand, and these suffer in attracting international ad spend as advertisers are rightly suspicious. All major credible TV markets have a single source of accepted truth.

Of course, that imperative for a single measurement can raise concerns about monopolies and breed resentment of a ‘lack of choice’. In any system, as in cricket, there will be winners and losers, and the temptation to question the wisdom of the umpire can be overwhelming for those who feel their ratings ‘must’ be higher! To protect against this, a number of steps are essential.

First, oversight must come from the industry itself, with representation from broadcasters, media agencies and advertisers. The precise balance of funding and shareholding can vary from country to country, but typically, broadcasters tend to have the greatest financial input and representation. This is because advertisers argue that they already fund the system indirectly by buying advertising and, therefore, broadcasters should prove to them the value of their investment.

However, it is also important to remember that a TV currency is not just there to serve the advertising industry. TV is an increasingly complex ecosystem, with funding coming, yes, from advertising, but increasingly from subscriptions, content production, sales and licencing deals, all of which also need a currency as a gold standard. All of this tends towards the broadcasters having a majority share in funding, and overseeing an independent body with advertiser and agency representation. The JIB system works well around the world and acknowledges that the measurement system is there for all parties, not just the advertisers.

A second essential element that guards against accusations of monopoly is the provision of transparency. Methodologies need to be publicly available and open to scrutiny by third parties. ‘Black boxes’ and secrecy breed suspicion, so industry experts, both in India and abroad, need access to detail on how the system works in order to reassure users and suggest improvements. Clearly that access needs to take account of data security as the ability to potentially locate panel member homes could lead to abuse.

Above all, whilst taking account of local market requirements, it is important that TV measurement currencies follow international best practice. From its inception, I can attest that BARC has kept a close eye on best practice around the world. This has guided the development of its service. Meanwhile, BARC has itself innovated in areas that have attracted international attention. Two prime examples would be its efforts to drive down unit cost for the meter hardware that sits in panel homes, and its recent work in measuring out-of-home-viewing in bars and restaurants. Being part of this international measurement community provides reassurance around methodology, and encourages advertising investment into the Indian market.

One of the ongoing areas of debate around the world, over the years, has been around optimum panel size. Measurement panels are designed to be a sample of the wider population, with numerous controls in place – region, demography, platform and technology access – to ensure panel balance. In an era of freely available ‘big data’ from servers and set top box, it would be a mistake to confuse panel size and representativeness.

BARC already has the world’s largest TV panel in place and is looking to further increase its size over time. However, there can be a law of diminishing returns and any statistician will tell you that a panel of twice the size is not twice as reliable, particularly if your panel is already 44,000 homes!

Increases in panel size require funding and that investment needs to be appraised against other enhancements to the service. Around the world, the emphasis, in recent years, has been placed not on panel increases, but more on the ingesting of set top box and census data, streaming measurement and out of home, all of which require funding and have greater potential to enhance the reliability of the service than panel size increases.

Like any five-year-old, BARC is far from perfect, but it is taking its lead from a successful international model:

- JIB funding and oversight

- One single currency as a reassuring reference point for the market

- Full transparency to reassure that best practice is being followed

- An investment plan for development that balances optimum panel size against investment in complementary new technologies to ensure that the system is future-proof.

The closer it can adhere to that model, the greater (are) its chances of long-term success.

Looking from the outside, it’s great that India is having a debate about its measurement system. That is healthy, and a quality currency should never be taken for granted, but it is equally important that the debate does not undermine the faith of international advertisers in investing in India.

The author Richard Marks is research director, ASI (Advertising Seminars International) Ltd (organisers of the International Television & Video Conference).