TV channels trapped

TRP war has dismantled their credibility

Television channels, especially the news channels have once again been caught in a whirlpool of controversy on account of allegedly manipulating television rating point (TRP). The TRP scam was unearthed last week after a police complaint by Hansa Research Group Pvt Ltd, the agency contracted by the Broadcast Audience Research Council (BARC) to place audience meters to monitor TV channels watched by households. Notably, TRP is an audience intensity measurement tool which aims to identify how many viewers a particular programme on a particular TV channel is getting. The metric is calculated on a device which is attached to a few thousands TV sets selected at random at the time of manufacturing. TRP is a big deal for television channels as it is a key factor in generating revenue. The higher a channel's TRP, the more advertisements and promotional campaigns it will get, which subsequently increases their income. Those with fewer TRP ratings, not only struggle to garner advertising support for their channels, but also face hard time to retain existing advertisers.

If we look at the performance of Indian television over the past two decades, we observe a major shift in the content quality of the programmes where it has lost its respect as a family medium. In fact the emergence of strong network of private television channels rolled out a competitive environment among these channels where social values have taken back seat to generate more and more revenue. Specifically, the news channels through their 'out of box' news and views coverage have disturbed social fabric among varied societies in the country.

Now, the TRP scam is all set to trigger their fall from grace which these channels have achieved through foul means (like alleged fudging of TRP) and most unfortunately at the cost of peace of common audience. Basically, TRP fraud is not new in Indian television set-up. In 2012, New Delhi Television (NDTV) filed a law suit in New York against Nielsen Holdings and its affiliate companies for over $1.3 billion in damages.

The suit claimed that Nielsen, a global research firm, had fudged television viewership data and contended that Nielsen's refusal to invest in its Indian arm, TAM (Television Audience Measurement) Media Research, led to corruption that in turn led to manipulation of viewership data in favour of some television channels. Media reports quoting the channel stated that this kind of manipulation had caused a loss of revenue for NDTV.

Following this, TAM made way for the Broadcast Audience Research Council (BARC) as the official ratings provider.

In 2016, three television channels, including two news channels were penalised by BARC for trying to manipulate viewership meters in households to gain TRP.

In 2018, the Bengaluru Crime Branch arrested a TV serial producer and four others who fudged TRPs, following a complaint by BARC. The accused had created artificial TRP ratings. The modus operandi was to bring multiple television sets where it had located the TRP machine and would change the channels to hike the TRP of any programme or channel.

Now in 2020, the Mumbai Police named three channels, including Republic TV, in a 'TRP Scam' in which these channels were allegedly trying to manipulate viewership ratings. Some people have been arrested by the police so far in relation to the scam.

It's noteworthy that the race for TRPs among private television news channels was described as 'Blood Pressure Raising Points (BRPs)' by former Prasar Bharati chairman A Surya Prakash. While taking a dig at the news channels which keep having eight to 10 panelists debating at the top of their voices, he rightly observed that no other country in the world seems to have this kind of a 'maara maari' on TV news channels.

However, one thing is certain that the race for TRP through unethical means has marred credibility of these channels. In the given situation, it's the credibility not TRP of the channel which matters most. Biased commentary on nationalism, patriotism and other diverse issues  and sensational coverage of incidents may lure to the TV screens, but the channel is going to lose the impact. Once impact is lost, it can result in their revenue loss.

However, fudging TRP is not an issue of that magnitude which causes pain to a common television audience. The content of the programmes tailored especially by news channels around a happening is one of the serious concerns as most of the times such tailored news and views cause harm to the peace of mind of common people. Besides, the content and presentation of most of the programmes telecast from these private television channels is fast leading to erosion of moral values of a society. In the name of creativity in content development, particularly in advertisements, vulgarity has been let loose. What's most surprising is that these vulgar ads focus more on obscenity than on the product or service of a company.

Over a period of time, the growth of news channels has encouraged a breed of anchors to groom themselves as journalists and experts in various fields, which otherwise didn't fit into their profiles. What we see today on television news channels is not at all journalism, it's simply an act of churning out glorified handouts tailored for these specific breed of men on screen (TV anchors). Precisely, I would call such practice in the name of journalism as 'churnalism'.

There's every possibility that these 'churnalists', who present themselves as more important than the event, may argue their role in the context of "journalism of attachment". Here let it be clear that the "journalism of attachment" as described by its kind-of founder Martin Bell, the BBC's veteran war correspondent, means journalism which "cares as well as knows".  In the context of the kind of breed of 'churnalists', there is no such feel of their care while covering or commenting on events for audiences. They ruthlessly expose their audiences to biased interpretation of whatever information they possess. Events are on record that "journalism of attachment" has been a practice in conflict zones where journalists remain in the battlefield covering happenings factually as well as observe moral obligations.

So, technically speaking, "journalism of attachment" is not practiced in cozy television studios, it's an activity to be conducted on the field and is purely based on morality. This, we can call moral journalism – a journalism that cares as well as knows.

Frankly speaking, most of them look for power rather than offering their services with responsibility. So it's the lust of this power which overpowers their sense of responsibility and sacrifice professionalism. They gather the information, twist it and put it to the public. For example, while making hay on the death of the actor Sushant Singh Rajput by suicide, most of these news channels took dig at Bollywood celebrities beyond their jurisdiction. Accusations of drug abuse, nepotism, toxic work culture and debauchery have been directed at many people in the industry by news channels. Now, Bollywood's who's who have come together to file a law suit before the Delhi High Court against media houses to "refrain them from making irresponsible, derogatory and defamatory remarks against Bollywood as a whole and members of Bollywood, and to restrain them from conducting media trials of Bollywood personalities.

Notably, four film bodies such as the Film and Television Producers Guild of India, The Cine & TV Artistes Association, Indian Film and TV Producers Council and Screenwriters Association, besides companies owned by actors and directors like Aamir Khan, Ajay Devgn, Anil Kapoor, Karan Johar, Anushka Sharma, Shah Rukh Khan, Salman Khan etc. have named Republic TV, Arnab Goswami, Pradeep Bhandari, Times Now, Rahul Shivshankar and Navika Kumar in the suit, according to DSK Legal, the firm that has filed the petition on behalf of the producers.

The suit asks the news channels to abide by the provisions of the Programme Code and to withdraw, recall and take down all the defamatory content published by them against Bollywood.

Meanwhile, the Information & Broadcasting  ministry in the backdrop of TRP scam has issued an advisory to the TV channels to adhere to Rule 6 of the programme code under the Cable Television Network (Regulation) Act, 1995. The provisions in the said Rule envisage that no programme should contain anything that is obscene, defamatory, or deliberate and false innuendoes and half truths. The ministry also highlighted the provisions that no content should criticise, malign or slander any individual in person or certain groups, segments of social, public and moral life of the country.

Last but not the least; these news channels should be – to the people, by the people and for the people. They should speak for the society and not for better television rating point (TRP) and money. It's credibility, not the TRPs which matter the most.

(The views are of the author & not the institution he works for)

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