Written by Yashwardhan Singh
Associate Editor at Law & Order
Fifth Year, BA. LLB. Symbiosis Law School, Pune
Source: Outlook India
Disclaimer: Please note that the views expressed below represent the opinions of the article's author. The following does not necessarily represent the views of Law & Order.
On 8th of October 2020, the Mumbai Police’s revelation of three news channels indulging in a television rating points (TRP) racket had all the other media houses scrambling in an agreeing cacophony. On the 24th of November 2020, the Mumbai Police filed a charge sheet against five television channels - Republic TV, WOW TV, Box Cinema, Fakta Marathi and Maha Movie - of indulging in TRP rigging and manipulation.
The TRP scam, as the media terms this situation, raises several pertinent questions. Are the laws in India inadequate to address TRP manipulation? How easy is it to rig television ratings? What benefit does such manipulation provide? The chief aim of this article is, thus, to address these and associated questions. It does not, in any manner, aim to prove or disprove the allegations against the five channels named in the scam, which is still pending investigation as on the date of writing this article.
Understanding Television Rating Points (TRPs)
Simply stated, TRP is the measurement system informing about the viewership data pertaining to television channels and television programmes. The rating system was created for advertising agencies and marketers to identify which channel and programme is viewed the most. Advertisers then use this information to decide on which channels they should optimise the spending. This information also proves useful for investors who can then take calculated decisions for purposes of investment in a particular channel or programme.
There is great significance in measuring the number of viewers for a programme or channel. The focus is on advertising. Close to half of India’s media and entertainment sector is dominated by the medium of television. In 2018, television advertising generated $223.5 billion in revenue and continues to be the largest contributor to India’s advertising revenue. Television ratings contribute integrally to the profits of channel owners. This is because the advertising rate on television channels is set according to the number of viewers on a channel. This viewership data is obtained from the system of TRP. Should these rating points be rigged or manipulated to show false and exaggerated data, not only are the advertisers paying more for a lesser audience, but the TV channels can also dupe audiences into believing that their channel is viewed widely.
How TRP is Calculated?
In order to understand how TRP can be manipulated, it is important to know how TRP is calculated in India. The system of television measurement is regulated solely by the Broadcast Audience Research Council (hereinafter ‘BARC’), which is a joint body comprising the Indian Broadcasting Federation, the Indian Society of Advertisers and the Advertising Agencies Association of India. To calculate TRP, BARC installs what it calls ‘bar-o-meters’ (different from the scientific instrument used to measure air pressure, the barometer) in select television sets in India. BARC has set up around 44,000 of these bar-o-meters each in different, undisclosed households of India.
The bar-o-meters record two types of data, (i) viewing details, which includes data pertaining to the amount of time the TV is used, the particular channels being watched, etc…; and (ii) audio watermarks. Audio watermarks are sounds unable to be heard by the human ear but which can be detected by specific software. These watermarks record and send information about which programme is being watched on a channel at a particular date and time. Using these collected data, BARC assigns ratings to TV channels and programmes.
As stated above, advertisers seek to publicise their ads on channels and programmes with higher TRP, as they indicate a larger viewership. TV channels earn a large portion of their revenues (about 70%) from advertisements. Hence, higher the ratings for a channel, the more likely that an advertiser is going to pay to advertise on a particular channel. However, the lure of earning more revenue can make TV channels indulge in ways to manipulate their TRPs. Allegations of TV channels indulging in such malpractices raise important questions of how genuine these ratings can be.
Manipulation of TRP
Despite the technicalities in calculating TRP, there exist several maladies in the current system for exploiters to make use of. The biggest threat to this system is through bribery. Once a TV channel identifies which households have BARC’s bar-o-meter systems installed, they can easily bribe the residents to keep viewing their channel for hours on end. This has been the prime accusation in the current TRP scam involving Republic TV and other channels. Alternatively, the TV channels can also bribe the cable-operators or service providers to set their channel as the “landing page” or the first channel which is displayed when the television is switched on. In 2019, Republic TV was accused of this malpractice as well, along with trying to list themselves under different genres of television channels (i.e. displaying the same channel under the categories of ‘English News’ and ‘Hindi News’, further falsifying ratings).
Second, it has been constantly put forth that the sample size of households in which the bar-o-meters are installed, presently numbered at around 45,000, is not representative of the over 836 million television viewers in India. Add to this the problem of bribing an already small sample size for a large population and this leads to huge variations in the measurement of TRP.
Manipulation, however, becomes easier when the sample size is small. TV channels are divided on the basis of their genres such as entertainment, kids, English movies, Hindi news, etc. For a genre which a relatively small percentage of the total 45,000 households watch, such as English news, bribing even 5 households would lead to an exaggerated TRP for the particular channel being viewed.
Further, BARC ratings inform us that on average, an English news channel is viewed per day for only about 8 minutes. In such a case, if an English news channel manages to bribe 4-5 households to watch their channels for over an hour, their TRP ratings would skyrocket by over 6 times the average, thus giving them a major advantage over their competitors.
An Outdated System
Several media law experts have criticised the current TRP system for its fallacies to cope with the ground realities. The system, they argue, does not represent India’s actual viewing patterns. There are two reasons for this. The first, as stated above, attributes to the low sample size of 45,000 households for a TV viewing population of over 830 million people. While the sample size may still bring statistically fair results for TV genres with larger audiences such as Hindi movies and Hindi news, it reflects more of a calculated guess when it comes to showcasing the data of TV genres such as English or Assamese news.
Secondly, India has noted a dramatic shift towards DTH connections over cable TV connections, and a rising shift towards OTT platforms over DTH connections. This, coupled with the pricing regulations measures of TV channels set by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India’s (TRAI’s) New Tariff Order (NTO), has created a dissonance between consumer and business interests. While consumers complain of complex and costly subscription packs for TV channels, the companies on the other hand find it difficult to earn revenues on price caps set by TRAI on channel subscription rates. The latest amendment to the NTO, released in January 2020, set the cap at Rs. 12 for channels being a part of a channel pack. The problem with the shifting landscape of television and price caps on channels is that it makes broadcasters more dependent on advertising for revenue.
Understanding the increasing dependency of TV channels on advertising revenue, the motives behind manipulating TRP become clear as glass. Higher the TRP, the more advertisers are attracted to advertise on a particular channel, and hence the larger the revenue for TV channels.
Taking into consideration the above factors, TRAI released its recommendations on the TRP system in a report titled, “Review of Television Audience Measurement and Rating System in India”. The report is a culmination of the number of concerns coming TRAI’s way regarding the neutrality and reliability of India’s television rating system. While it asks for the increase in the number of houses sampled and for the restructure of BARC as an organisation, it fails to introduce any penal provisions for the manipulation and rigging of TRP. Perhaps, in light of recent developments, TRAI would be forced to relook at the system, and its own report.
TRP functions as a tool informing about the popularity of TV channels and programmes. However, the presence of guidelines in place of proper regulations and the lack of penal provisions for dishonest practices strongly indicate a rethinking of the current TRP process, a point of consideration argued by the Minister of Information and Broadcasting himself. Manipulation of TRP should be made a punishable criminal offence along with increasing the number of sample households by BARC from 45,000 to TRAI’s recommended 1,00,000.
The October 2020 TRP scam is not something which has arisen out of the blue. The past has recorded several instances of BARC complaining of TRP rigging by certain channels. Yet, the prevalence of dormancy then has led to the normalcy of such malpractices with little or no consequences for the offenders. This aspect of media law, thus, needs a serious overhaul.
 Mrityunjay Bose, Mumbai police to summon Republic TV directors, owners of 2 other channels arrested for manipulating TRP ratings, Deccan Herald (October 8th, 2020), https://www.deccanherald.com/national/west/mumbai-police-to-summon-republic-tv-directors-owners-of-2-other-channels-arrested-for-manipulating-trp-ratings-899103.html  Sudhir Suryavanshi, Mumbai Cops Name Republic TV’s Honcho, Five Other Channels in TRP Scam, The Indian Express (November 25, 2020), https://www.newindianexpress.com/nation/2020/nov/25/mumbai-cops-name-republic-tvs-honcho-five-otherchannels-in-trp-scam-2227772.html.  Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, Recommendations On Policy and Operational issues for Television Audience Measurement (TAM)/ Television Rating Points (TRP) (2008).  FICCI-EY, Re-imagining India’s M&E Sector (2018).  India Brand Equity Foundation, Media and Entertainment Report (2019).  Special Correspondent, Explained: TRP and Its Loopholes, The Hindu (October 8, 2020), https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/explained-trp-and-its-loopholes/article32805873.ece.  Krishn Kaushik, The Manipulation of Television Rating Points: How TRPs work, the scam, The Indian Express (October 16, 2020), https://indianexpress.com/article/explained/explained-what-are-trps-can-they-be-rigged-to-help-a-news-channel-6716211/.  Cherry Agarwal, Is Republic Bharat flouting TRAI regulations for TRPs?, NewsLaundry (February 21, 2019), https://www.newslaundry.com/2019/02/21/republic-bharat-trai-regulations-dual-lcns.  Gaurav Laghate, TRPs: Built on houses of cards?, India Times (October 12, 2020), http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/articleshow/78610546.cms?utm_source=contentofinterest&utm_medium=text&utm_campaign=cppst.  Supra, note 6.  Archis Chowdhury, What Are TRP Ratings And How It Is Rigged, Boom Live (October 12, 2020), https://www.boomlive.in/fact-file/what-are-trp-ratings-and-how-it-is-rigged-10142.  Farah Bookwala Vhora, Indian TV industry: In urgent need of rewiring, Exchange 4 Media (August 25, 2020), https://www.exchange4media.com/media-tv-news/indian-tv-industry-in-urgent-need-of-rewiring-107056.html.  Review of Television Audience Measurement and Rating System in India, Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (April, 2020).  Supra, note 5.  Supra, note 12.  Ibid.
Jawhar Sircar, TRP Manipulation and TV Channels Propagating Hate Are Two Different Problems, The Wire (October 13, 2020), https://thewire.in/media/trp-manipulation-tv-hate-propaganda.
Mrityunjay Bose, Mumbai police to summon Republic TV directors, owners of 2 other channels arrested for manipulating TRP ratings, DECCAN HERALD (October 8th, 2020), https://www.deccanherald.com/national/west/mumbai-police-to-summon-republic-tv-directors-owners-of-2-other-channels-arrested-for-manipulating-trp-ratings-899103.html
Special Correspondent, Explained: TRP and Its Loopholes, The Hindu (October 8, 2020), https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/explained-trp-and-its-loopholes/article32805873.ece.
Krishn Kaushik, The Manipulation of Television Rating Points: How TRPs work, the scam, THE INDIAN EXPRESS (October 16, 2020), https://indianexpress.com/article/explained/explained-what-are-trps-can-they-be-rigged-to-help-a-news-channel-6716211/.
Cherry Agarwal, Is Republic Bharat flouting TRAI regulations for TRPs?, NEWSLAUNDRY (February 21, 2019), https://www.newslaundry.com/2019/02/21/republic-bharat-trai-regulations-dual-lcns.
Gaurav Laghate, TRPs: Built on houses of cards?, INDIA TIMES (October 12, 2020), http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/articleshow/78610546.cms?utm_source=contentofinterest&utm_medium=text&utm_campaign=cppst.
Archis Chowdhury, What Are TRP Ratings And How It Is Rigged, BOOM LIVE (October 12, 2020), https://www.boomlive.in/fact-file/what-are-trp-ratings-and-how-it-is-rigged-10142.
Farah Bookwala Vhora, Indian TV industry: In urgent need of rewiring, EXCHANGE 4 MEDIA (August 25, 2020), https://www.exchange4media.com/media-tv-news/indian-tv-industry-in-urgent-need-of-rewiring-107056.html.
Shivangi Mittal, Varun Ramdas, Indian TV Broadcasting at a Crossroads - An Assessment of Regulatory Outcomes and the Way Forward, Koan Advisory (2020).
Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, Recommendations on Policy and Operational Issues for Television Audience Measurement (TAM)/ Television Rating Points (TRP) (2008).
FICCI-EY, Re-Imagining India’s M&E Sector (2018).
India Brand Equity Foundation, Media and Entertainment Report (2019).