Row Breaks Out Within India’s News Broadcasting Community Over Audience Ratings Allegations

In a letter sent to BARC India, the News Broadcasters Association has complained about manipulation in TV9 Bharatvarsh's ratings, a charge that the news channel has denied.

New Delhi: A controversy has erupted within the Indian news broadcast television community, with the News Broadcasters Association (NBA) complaining to the Broadcast Audience Research Council (BARC) about the “unprecedented” viewership growth of Hindi news channel TV9 Bharatvarsh and wild viewership swings in the English news genre of channels.

In a letter sent last week, the association – which claims that several broadcasters have written to the industry body, saying that BARC’s weekly ratings are “not in correlation to the basics of television” –  also alleges that “manipulated data” is being released week after week without any “remedial action”.

The NBA represents 27 leading news and current affairs broadcasters and is headed by India TV chairman Rajat Sharma. BARC India is promoted by various broadcasting and advertising associations.

TV9 Bharatvarsh is not a current member of the NBA, having decided not to renew its membership earlier this year.

In its complaint to BARC, the NBA cites TV9 Bharatvarsh’s viewership growth after the cessation of the COVID-19 lockdown – and its lack of major on-screen talent and on-location coverage – as proof of possibly shoddy ratings.

“It is well known that legacy brands have an advantage during LIVE and fast unfolding news events of national importance. However this week Chinese troops related news and actor Sushant suicide which was the biggest in the recent two weeks have not given the legacy brands as much benefit as it has given to TV9 suddenly,” the letter notes.

The broadcasting association also claims that while “several channels of TV 9 group have been caught in the past manipulating their viewership data so as to climb up the ratings data”, BARC India’s “unstable data” is not just restricted to TV9, but also permeates across the English news genre which has been plagued by “wild swings”.

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In its letter, the NBA also more broadly demands that BARC ”should conduct an independent third party enquiry, thoroughly investigate, take remedial actions and also take actions against officials involved in corrupt practices”.

When contacted by The Wire and asked for a statement, BARC India said that each week’s audience data is “released only after comprehensive statistical and security data validation”.

“BARC India is a not-for-profit industry body and concerns raised are duly deliberated amongst its constituents. We advise The Wire to exercise caution and undertake the necessary due diligence to ascertain the relevant facts in its news reports. BARC diligently reports what India watches on Television and each week’s data is released only after a comprehensive statistical and security data validation,” a spokesperson said in an e-mailed reply.

TV9 response

In comments made to industry publication exchange4media, TV9 CEO Barun Das soundly rejected the NBA’s allegations and said the suggestion of market manipulation “flies in the face of logic and facts”.

“We were the only channel which relaunched pre-COVID with new look, new programming, aggressive marketing on regional local channels and digital platforms (our strategy has now being followed by competition just like they are trying to replicate our content formulations) and better distribution…,” Das said.

“Our focus on content, its packaging and delivery has paid us rich dividends as did our conscious attempt to stay ahead of events. We sensed the world’s anger against China for spreading COVID 19 even as it was just building in India. We put China and every act of its commission and omission under the microscope. Having already taken a strong anti-China line on COVID, we were the natural beneficiaries of the extreme anger against China when it dared kill our soldiers in Galwan. Really, there is no magic or manipulation. Just business basics at work.”

In a separate statement, Das also said that the NBA’s letter revealed its “lack of basic understanding” of the television news business. “The fundamental reason behind our success is a concerted strategy of content, distribution and promotion aided by the astronomical rise in viewership during the early weeks of the lockdown. This has been discussed in relevant media forums openly, repeatedly and live.”

He also adds that the NBA seems to have given credence to some fake WhatsApp rumours “doing the rounds to defame TV9 network”, a matter which has already been taken up by the news channel with the Telengana police.