One critical aspect of the television rating point (TRP) scam engulfing Republic TV, as well as industry regulator Broadcast Audience Research Council (BARC), is how manipulated viewership and the corresponding rise in advertising revenues of one channel created a general psychology in the news TV universe that a certain type of manufactured and divisive content could be monetised.
Indeed, this was the biggest success of the Narendra Modi establishment – to have a private channel play the pied piper and create an illusion that news and debate around highly divisive content would pay rich dividends in terms of revenues and profits.
This strategy of the establishment succeeded for some years, as many new channels, especially in Hindi, started aping Republic TV and a time came when they all became clones of each other in terms of dishing out highly divisive debates during primetime. Even Times Now, part of the Times Group, had become a clone of Republic, even though it is now acting as an injured party and is contemplating suing BARC for allegedly bumping up the viewership of Arnab Goswami’s channel, and consequently dislodging Times Now from the No 1 position.
The fact that Republic and Times Now both followed similar content strategies in their relentless pursuit of TRPs is evident from the recent Bombay high court order on the media coverage of the Sushant Singh Rajput case, which indicts TV channels for generating content which was “contemptuous with ingredients of criminality”. The court particularly singled out Republic and Times Now for acting as investigator, prosecutor and judge. The court warned that in future, such coverage could invoke penal provisions of law.
Similarly, the Bombay high court indicted the media’s coverage of the Tablighi Jamaat congregation at Nizamuddin Markaz, whose attendees were demonised by the media as “superspreaders” of the coronavirus or more cynically as “corona bombs”. The health ministry officials too fanned the fire by separately mentioning cases from the “Tablighi cluster”, giving the impression that they were the reason for the coronavirus’s spread for several weeks.
It is very important to cite these two Bombay high court orders in the context of the TRP scam because both manufactured viewership and manufactured debates had diabolically converged during this period. Not just Republic and Times Now, many other news channels had fallen prey to this double whammy of fixed TRPs and divisive debates. The investigation of the TRP scam must also help in restoring a semblance of normalcy in this regard.
The first step to be taken is to make the TRP system credible. It cannot happen under BARC anymore because the entire system has become rotten. It is clear that BARC has lost all credibility and cannot act as a neutral regulator anymore. The News Broadcasters Association (NBA), a broadcast media owners’ body, has suggested that BARC suspend the TRP of Republic until the criminal case launched by Mumbai police reaches a conclusion in the courts. This presumes BARC is in a state to act as a neutral referee now with the Republic case out of the way. This won’t happen because some other members of the NBA, such as India Today TV, are also under investigation for gaming the system. The BARC management was so malleable that it came under pressure form several media owners from time to time, before becoming a permanent ally of Republic, as the WhatsApp chats appear to reveal.
The only solution now is to completely supersede BARC and create a special Broadcast Media Commission which should look at radically new ways of governing the TRP system with technologically foolproof suggestions from the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI).
TRAI had in fact made suggestions on automatic digital recording of viewership, covering 100% TV households as opposed to the limited sampling via manually installed TV meters which are open to manipulation. This was opposed by most leading broadcasters for reasons which are obvious. This commission must be constituted by retired SC judges and civil cum technology administrators with a good past record. A complete overhaul of the present system can help break the close nexus between manufactured TRPs and divisive debates because they often feed into each other.
TRAI has suggested that besides standalone TV viewership, the audiences of the same TV programmes on the Internet, such as YouTube video views, may also be given weightage to calculate TRPs. These are new ideas which need to be explored to restore the credibility of the system.