Saturday, September 24, 2011

Consternation and Concern on TRP Ratings

Consternation and Concern on TRP Ratings

Teesta Setalvad

In the 28 years that I have been a part, observer and participant of the Indian Media, 15 of which have dove-tailed with activism on issues related to access to justice, equity and non discrimination, examining and assessing the media’s role within a democracy, I have found, is clearly as critical as engaging with other institutions and instruments of democratic governance. In the early and mid 1980s, John Berger’s Ways of Seeing, offered a classical understanding of varied perceptions, the complexities involved in the reception of words and images. For both, the viewer read user and the viewed read receiver.

It seemed difficult enough then, when the Women and Media Committee set up by some of us women journalists, had publicly raised questions, and analysed, the media portrayal of issues related to women in the media. We simultaneously questioned the classic work-related problems of women in the newsmakers workplace; so along with analysing how all publications wrote about the episode of Roop Kanwar’s Sati at Deorala in the late eighties, we specifically asked for better conditions for women working journalists including the right to work on night duty!! In the early eighties, a band of us had protested at the Western Naval Command, when INS Vikrant was making a historic submarine advance, off Mumbai. While our Prime Minister a woman (Indira Gandhi) would undoubtedly be allowed on board, us poor women reporters were politely asked to stay away due to archaic norms that held that the mere presence of a woman aboard a ship to be a distraction to the sailor on duty!!

Our questions to the media leader, The Times of India, in the late 1980s on why it had taken India’s number one newspaper, 22 days after the gruesome burning alive of a widow in Rajasthan, to write an editorial on the issue, had brought forward a candid (if unashamed) response.

The then editor of the newspaper, who remains a prominent public figure today, justified, this delay, offering two reasons. With the serial Ramayana on television prime Sunday morning time, consuming media viewer interest, the newspaper felt that, that was where the media interest, read numbers, lay. Two, the TOI only felt the need to editorially comment on the forcible burning alive of a young woman on the funeral pyre of her husband, only after the Prime Minister (Rajiv Gandhi at the time) spoke on the issue! So it was the nineteen eighties version of TRP ratings and prioritising that was the justification.

Old habits die hard. As events unfold and the media coverage of news, views and happenings is dominated by that magic hour on television every day, any comment that one offers today on inclusion of exclusion of news, on the absence of balance or analysis, in the coverage of news on television, brings only one answer --the TRP ratings. I have therefore become obsessed with getting to the bottom of this, the final, the ultimate, numbers justification. This is an ongoing obsession, one that brings me sighs of irritation and exasperation, on rare occasions, of appreciation from friends in the media.

August 16, 2011 and the days that followed is the most recent example though after 26/11 in 2008, I remember feeling similarly agitated. For ten-twelve days atleast (though this still continues) major channels covered Annaji’s fast at Ramlila Maidan to the exclusivity of all else. The central government’s almost suicidal and arrogant mishandling of the situation -- first by excluding elected Opposition parties from the Committee on the Bill and then (who authored this script?) arresting a man who wanted only to sit at a smaller Maidan Location ---at first justified the outraged coverage from a newsmaker’s point. But as time wore on and this excluded all other news from the viewer, serious questions arose.

Floods in Bihar took thirty lives the first day but did not make it to national television. Other north Indian states were ravaged by flood in the days that followed but there was no coverage of the natural calamities. The brutalities by the regime in Syria could only be captured on Al Jazeerah and BBC. No other news, just this, one mega event. Perpetuating the tested maxim, that exclusion is the best technique of generating partisan viewing or prejudice.

Soon after Annaji’s fast had ended, a newsmagazine asked one of our most watched television news anchors for an interview on the issues of ethics in media coverage of the recent television event -- Anna Hazareji’s fast and the movement against corruption. Refusing such an interview to the magazine, an interview that may have brought out the flaws behind the justification of such exclusivist coverage--- the anchor simplistically waved the magic wand answer, again—TRP ratings in the magazine editor’s face.

As if the numbers justify the means. Once again.

So let’s get to the numbers then. Television Rating Points (TRPs) is the magic wand for some television channels and for advertisers. Some would argue that our politicians too who have stopped functioning organisationally or politically and are only reacting to television.

What then is the TRP rating? In a country of 120 million cable and satellite homes, there are a mere 8,000 “boxes” (some say only 5,500) that compute the reactions of 120 million homes and 120 million multiplied by five individuals. While channels and governments, state governments are not supposed to know where these boxes are placed, bad (read, corrupt) practices have discovered that many are fixed in homes so that the results can be favourably generated. Of these, coming to the English viewer, there are barely 5-600 viewing boxes that track the English media. In many states that need not be named, state governments brazenly doctor these figures by controlling the “box locations” and their outcomes.

This must lead us to more questions, not less and hopefully, more answers. Viewers and watchers of television, who either like what they see, or experience a deep disquiet with what is is being selectively and consciously dished out need to question the basis of the TRP marker.

In a free and democratic society, we need to know more, not less. Presently, we are told, INTAM (Indian Television Audience Measurement) is the only electronic rating agency functioning in India. It is INTAM that, ostensibly uses two methodologies for calculating TRP. First is frequency monitoring, in which 'people meters' are installed in sample homes and these electronic gadgets continuously record data about the channel watched by the family members. 'People meter' is a costly equipment we are informed,, which is imported from abroad. It reads the frequencies of channels, which are later, decoded into the name of the channels and the agency prepares a national data on the basis of its sample homes readings.
The second technique is more reliable and relatively new to India. In picture matching technique people metre continuously records a small portion of the picture that is being watched on that particular television set. Along with this agency also records all the channels' data in the form of small picture portion. Data collected from the sample homes is later on matched with the main data bank to interpret the channel name. And this is the way then that a national rating is produced.

Presently, TRP is based upon only a small urban sample of 5500, some say 8,000, homes spread all over India. Very often channels –unethically--misrepresent the TRP facts in their favour. For example, if a channel gets top ratings during a specific time slot it advertises this fact as if it is by this fact the number one channel!! This is misleading because in terms of average ratings another channel would at this viewing time actually be on the top. Actually, leading in ratings for any long spell of time has become very difficult to achieve now-a-days, as there is a tussle over top slots. No wonder that this fictitiously constructed TRP has become such a big issue for channels that it is almost dictating the content of television programmes. Once the TRP crosses six points, the producer feels no dearth of advertisers. The Money then creates the Market.

So the question we viewers or the consumers of television channels need to ask is that when the basis of such ratings itself is seriously flawed, if not utterly fraudulent, what system of quality measure can we have or should we evolve? What information must the viewer and consumer have?

Surely this matter cannot be left to the whims of channels, their owners and financiers and promoters?

In an era demanding transparency, good governance and accountability, that too in a vibrant, functioning democracy, we would be, by not asking these questions, privileging money over matter. Could we expand the current debate then to the truth behind TRP ratings?

And who collects the figures? Who sets the norms?

Related to this is an issue is one of transparency in media ownership. Doordarshan despite the creation of Prasar Bharati remains hopelessly controlled by the government. Through the tumultuous August of 2011 it remained unmoved by the angst and trauma that had gripped Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Guwahati, Kolkatta, Hyderabad, Bengalaru.....

So while we continue to agitate for a good and autonomous Public Broadcasting Service, at least we know that Doordarshan remains controlled by the Information and Broadcasting Ministry of the government of India and the whims of the political class in power. So it will be, and is, judged keeping this control over ownership and content, in mind. At a time when Judges of the Higher Courts and Ministers in Governments are declaring their assets, the Indian media viewer and consumer surely has a right to know the ownership patterns of the print and electronic media that decides and controls the issues it portrays and the news and discussions it privileges over others?

Getting the debate to centre on the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) through the neglect of media coverage of Sharmila Irom’s eleven year old fast in Manipur was an honest attempt at media reflecting on criticism, genuine introspection after Anna ji’s fast had ended. If the media could continue to turn the spotlight inwards on these other aspects too, the Indian media, one of the bets in the world, could do itself proud.

Unlike Bollywood, or Hollywood as a senior television journalist said to me before I sat down to write this, television news coverage should not be about Box Office Ratings. It should be about depth of coverage, nuances behind issues, and the span of issues covered. Respect not Ratings. Rational Thought over Jingoistic Sensationalism.

We may then start having discussions instead of the guillotine like college debate where the black and white are allowed but the greys of shades and opinion that add to a nuanced (read complicated) canvas are denied the viewer.

Another recent occasion comes to mind. Soon after the brute attacks on Mumbai in that November of 2011, when for 72 hours, television reporters at great risk, and with admirable stamina, stood the ground and their anchor-bosses smacked their lips in the comfort zones of their studios—it was the red flag of TRP ratings that was used to justify not simply intrusive but unthinking coverage of the shootings, terror and trauma. The fallout of the terror attacks was the lowest common denominator in terms of quality ... cheap, jingoistic coverage surfaced and has, for some, stayed. TRPs remain the justification.

It was post 26/11 Mumbai when some of us tried to talk to one of the anchors who had positioned himself as the victor in the TRP game. Some of us gently, sarcastically, laughingly even tried to suggest that the leverage of numbers the channel had ostensibly achieved, should be channelized into say campaigns for greater security through accountability –say a People’s Campaign for Police Reforms.

Or better still, we said, question the “security leaks” through discussions, intelligent ones on the need for police reform that all of us would like to see happen? Not just to ensure a less partisan and more accountable police force that has faced the brunt of criticism after bouts of communal violence but also a police force that is both modernly dressed, behaved and humane, that is answerable to civilised questions from a citizenry that has a serious trust deficit about even walking into a police station in Mumbai’s Juhu or Santacruz or it’s New Delhi counterpart. The sense of dread a woman or man feels when going into these quarters is surely a stinging reflection on our democracy.

A television discussion on Police reform –mandated by the Supreme Court’s orders in the Prakash Singh Case and Nine Police Commission Reports between 1981-1989-- that sees the Indian Policeman and woman, autonomous and independent, not prone victim to the whims of transfer and victimisation along with the right to decent living quarters. Not just the IPS cadre but ninety six per cent of the force that is non IPS and non English educated and who’s children must be ensured access to good, decent schooling? Because challenging our system and ensuring more democracy, is also about deepening democratic functioning and access within institutions of governance, the judiciary, law enforcement, and the executive?

But then such a discussion, even on television would often be about the commas and punctuation marks, nuances of the issue under discussion not the un-thought-provoking format that we currently see or hear. An irritating question that channels put to the guests before inviting you on at prime time these days, is simplistic. Are you “for” or “against” the challenge posed by the all powerful, television anchor. The refusal to slot yourself puts you in the difficult category of the independent, or the problematic participant.

It’s not just about are you for Anna ji or against? For or against the battle against corruption? More or less a patriot ? It’s also about what this patriotism is all about.

It’s also about where I, as a media person or a media observer, see the unaccountability, absence of regard for fundamental Constitutional rights and the absence of transparency manifesting itself. For the Dalit or Adivasi woman or man, even Muslim or Christian today, accessing a Ration or BPL card, or school admission, or even a bank loan, credit, is often a story about denial or discrimination.

The non payment of taxes by a vast majority of my countrymen and women, middle class and upwards, for me is the most basic, personal form of corruption. Tax evasion. Non payment of income tax dues. It is an offence. We could call for a Campaign List from our Tax Authorities not just felicitating the high end Tax Payers, but annually publishing the List of Tax Evaders, region by region, on their website.

Do we also see this as a form of corruption or not?

(The writer is a journalist, educationist and activist)

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