Sex, lies & scandal: The TRP-driven news media

One of the oldest and most open secrets in the media and advertising business is out in the open again – the way of measuring television ratings is not just inherently flawed; it is also prone and open to rigging. At stake is a chunk of the Rs 25,000 crore advertising spend on television. There are almost 900 TV channels in India – operating at hyperlocal, local, regional, state and national and international levels. Each of them is subject to only one metric – ratings. The higher the ratings, the higher the ability to corner extra advertising revenue. The quality of content is immaterial, what matters is how long the audience sticks to the channel and its programming.

There are over 400 news channels in India, and they too are measured by the same ratings that apply to entertainment channels. Competing against the shrillness of reality shows like Big Boss, and the high confrontational drama of soap operas, news channels have found that most audiences aren’t really interested in consuming vast amounts of news. The audiences are also not interested in stories around deprivation, development, or the goings-on in the democracy. What audiences want is spectacle, and news channels give them what they want.

In the book Media Spectacle, author Douglas Kellner makes a very interesting case for how modern societies are organised around spectacle. One look either the American or the Indian elections will tell you how much style triumphs over substance. From the campaigns to the songs, from the involvement of stars, to the slickness of TV campaigns – it is all a well-packaged spectacle.

Kellner says, “Social and political conflicts are increasingly played out on the screens of media culture, which display spectacles such as sensational murder cases, terrorist bombings, celebrity and political sex scandals, and the explosive violence of everyday life.” Add to this, well-articulated opinion – however ridiculous it may be – and you have a soap opera every night on your screens, masquerading as news.

As in a soap opera, you need heroes and villains. And different people get cast as that. Look at the start of the lockdown. How do you cover the news when everyone is locked in? You create a villain – and that role went to the Tablighi Jamaat. Never mind the murder of truth, never mind the spread of hate – the appeasement of the rating gods was paramount. While it may be true that many of the news presenters – one is loath to call them news editors – believed in the need for vilification of minorities to combat a virus – the tragic fact remains that if it did not sell, it would not have run. We, the people, like spectacle. And we like the idea of an ‘enemy’ that we can personify. An invisible virus just does not work as well to attract audiences as the idea of a horde of religious fundamentalists out to infect the population.

From June onwards, the media had a new provider of ratings. They latched onto the tragic death by suicide of Bollywood actor Sushant Singh Rajput and went to town with conspiracy theories, murder accusations, and the personal vilification of Rhea Chakraborty. All in the name of 'Justice for Sushant Singh Rajput', but more likely with an eye on ratings. The public loves a juicy scandal. Throw in celebrities, and what you have is audience stickiness and ratings.

Television Rating Points (TRPs) are meant to measure the viewership of shows on television. Run by the Broadcast Audience Research Council (BARC), there are around 45,000 meters in as many households (BarOMeter) that act as representative for the mass Indian audience. The panel is supposed to be secret and spread across socio-economic groupings. As the member of a panel household watches TV, they log in their presence with the press of a viewer ID button on a device (each member of the family will have a different ID). This registers what the panellist watches and the system extrapolates this watch time to the rest of India. For instance, if you are a panellist and pressed a button on a particular show, got diverted by a call and spent the next two hours on your computer – the system would still register you as having spent two hours on that particular show. And this is the least of the problems with the ratings system.

The system has been hobbled, not just now, but in the past too. In 2001, there was a major expose on how TRPs were being manipulated. Then, like now, there were TV sets with meters found in chawls, and the people mapped to SEC A (the topmost socio-economic group, that gets the maximum interest from advertisers). Nothing happened. No channel lost their licence, nobody went to jail and no advertiser asked any questions on why they were spending large chunks of money on dud ratings.

This time around, advertisers need to know what they are funding, and why. Industrialist Rajiv Bajaj has already indicated that his group will boycott three channels for spreading toxicity and hate. More have to step up and speak up against those channels that are trying to damage the fabric of Indian society.

At the same time, ratings agencies need to see if news can be measured by the same parameters as entertainment. Should there be a different ratings system for news altogether? Something that has qualitative scores based on veracity and trust and a quantitative measure based on viewership? Whatever be the outcome of the TRP scam, the systems that measure and monitor TV ratings has to change.

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