The disclosures by Mumbai police about meddling in viewership figures by certain TV channels to show higher than real numbers, do not only highlight the malpractices existing in this field, they also point a finger at the lack of transparency in the process of metering the popularity figures of visual media. The recent allegation is that news channel Republic TV and two Marathi channels fudged numbers to boost TRP (Television Rating Points) figures. The probe by Mumbai police was made following a complaint by an agency Hansa Research, commissioned by Broadcast Audience Research Council (BARC). An amount of Rs 20 lakh was seized from one of the employees appointed to install Bar-O-Meters installed in houses on behalf of BARC; according to the police the employee confessed that the amount was intended to be distributed among several households in Rs 400 and 500 every month. The bribe was meant as reward for the viewers keeping constantly on the select channels which tried to get the doctored ratings. Thus, households where no one knows English keep on English news channel for hours on end. In certain channels viewership recorded unusual rise. In some houses with the meters, particular channels were found to be kept on even in hours when no one was inside. All these tactics to show fake viewership figures are employed to boost advertisement revenue. For, it is based on the TRP figures provided by BARC that advertisers decide which channels to give their adverts, how much and at what rates. Through the so fabricated numbers, the channels eke out crores of rupees illegally from advert patrons. The inference by the police that this fraud is happening all over the country, cannot be dismissed easily.
These phenomenon of rigged ratings is as old as the advent of private channels. It was following the discovery of significant fraud in viewership tracking by Television Audience Measurement (TAM) that BARC was entrusted with the task. Even during the time when Doordarshan had a near monopoly, none of Doordarshan's programmes had figured in the 50 most popular programmes. It was after living with false figures for decades that in 2015 BARC was given the responsibility to track viewership. But complaints did not end there. When programmes with huge viewerships were seen rated lower, ones with relatively low viewership were still seen on top of the list. Channels with connections to the higher ups of the monitoring machinery, are never seen to come below a certain level. And the mismatch between the TRP figures and the viewership figures in social media also go unexplained.
Even now the viewer statistics depend on the same mechanism of fixing meters in houses, as done before - which has sufficient room for cheating. And the same lack of transparency is still there as before. If 20 years ago, 2,000 meters were installed, it has increased only to 40,000 now, which represents 15.35 crore households. A key point to note: it is based on this that advertisements worth Rs 27,000 crore are issued every year. As a result, what happens now is what is natural in a system with loopholes for fraud and insufficiency of sampling which determines the distribution of this heavy advertisement billing. It is not that advertisers were taken for a ride only since recently. In a letter sent to BARC three years ago, a channel had cited the case of abnormal rise in viewership of certain other channels through a few households in Gujarat. This year too, BARC had received a complaint that the viewership of channel TV Bharatvarsh was seen jacked up unconvincingly high. In many places there are said to exist even 'rating consultants'. Although information about which households have been fitted with meters is said to be secret, consultants come to know everything, and give their 'service' to channels who seek it.
Even as the sole criterion of popularity figures lies with BARC, it is a fact that its statistics lack the authenticity or transparency expected of such a monopoly. If the failings of the earlier TAM still continue to plague BARC's TRP, the villain is not only the smart ones exploiting the loopholes. In times when even news channels become entertainment, debates turn acrimonious screaming and content lose their credibility, there are some who deem their commercial side stable. And there are such advertisers as are forced to rely on BARC's numbers for want of a better yardstick. In addition to all this, in a world of television which is capable of influencing society in range and depth, there is a common public who aspire for at least a modicum of truth and virtue to survive. The need of the hour is a through cleansing exercise which will only be in the interest of all these constituencies. And that is not to be limited to a police case in Mumbai.