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BARC’s ratings suspension has news channels worried, but not advertisers

After a suspension of nearly five months, the Broadcast Audience Research Council was asked to further withhold television ratings for news channels. In a letter dated February 15, 2021, the ministry of information and broadcasting told BARC not to resume the ratings until a committee examining discrepancies in the TRP system submitted its report.

BARC’s initial suspension in October came after the Mumbai police unearthed a TRP scam, alleging that a few media houses bribed homeowners to “rig” their TV ratings. The organisation continues to release ratings for the news genre as a whole, but not for individual news channels.

In the wake of the extended suspension, TV news channels seem to be more ill at ease than advertisers, for the TRP system is the life-blood of the TV news model. Advertisers place their ads on a news channel based on TV ratings, in conjunction with other metrics.

To get a sense of how ads are being deployed on news channels in the absence of ratings, and its effects on the channels, Newslaundry spoke to professionals in the advertising and TV news industries.

Advertising insiders maintained that the industry has kept its cool in the last three months. This is unlike the TV news space, which is trying to come to terms with the lack of viewership data and its lasting consequences.

‘News is not central to advertisers’
While TV news channels run largely on ad revenue, they are not where advertisers line up first to sell their products. All the news channels put together make up less than 10 percent of the entire TV viewership in the country, according to media consultant Chintamani Rao, a veteran who has dabbled in both news and advertising spaces.

Rao pointed out that owing to the size of the TV genre, news is not central to any advertiser’s television plan.

“Despite all the sound and fury you see on English news channels, they make up about 0.04 percent of the total television viewership,” he said, adding that not being on a news channel will not affect “a single advertiser” in the country. Another advertising professional pegged the viewership share of English news at a liberal one percent.

Why then do advertisers buy slots on news channels? Rao said it was either to increase their exposure or to reach their target audience in a more streamlined way.

A media professional explained, on the condition of anonymity, how news is not used as a foundation for advertisers to market their products. If an advertiser is launching a product campaign, it will look at the television genre with the most reach and the highest share of viewership. In other words, advertisers will first approach general entertainment channels, followed by movie, music and sports channels. Only then do news channels come into the mix.

Notably, advertisers don’t anchor their campaigns on a single news channel but in a bouquet or combination of news channels that run their campaigns simultaneously.

Besides, advertisers also approach news channels if they want to target a specific audience. Aunindyo Chakravarty, former managing editor of NDTV India and NDTV Profit, said the ratings for English news channels are given in the parameter 22 + AB male. This means the target audience is men in the top two income categories in metro cities who are aged 22 and above – the earning- and decision-making age. He added that when news channels such as Times Now and Republic fight for TV ratings, they are fighting over only this slice of viewers.

“Channels are actually made fun of when they say ‘we are number one among all viewers’,” said Chakravarty, noting that for competing channels it only matters if another channel has ranked higher among the target audience.

When it comes to Hindi and regional news channels, which have a greater reach than English channels, a wider selection of mass-market advertisers add them to their packages. This too, however, is done mainly to get overhead reach for their products.

‘News channels were never really sold on ratings’
The ratings suspension has not had a uniform impact across news channels. While some claim it has dried up their revenues, others justify the pause citing a broken audience measurement system that needs to be fixed.

An executive at the News Broadcasters Federation, an association of regional news channels led by the Republic Media Network, told Newslaundry that no ratings in the industry meant no revenue.

“Our revenue has dropped by 30 percent. Channels are either on the brink of shutting down, or have already shut,” the executive said, adding that the post-lockdown period was a missed opportunity to corner ads, since news viewership jumped by nearly 300 percent. “Brands were not selling any product on TV at the time, except perhaps those that sold sanitisers. We also missed the Diwali bus in November, a good time for ad spending.”

The executive gave the example of NewsFirst Kannada, a regional news channel that launched in September 2020. It had planned to collate BARC ratings over four weeks and approach advertisers the following month. “But the ratings were suspended in October and the channel has had nothing to offer advertisers for four months,” the executive said. “They have not made any revenue.”

Internal data from news channels shows that ad revenues did rise sharply around Diwali last year. However, Republic Bharat performed poorly, whereas India TV and News18 India topped the charts. But all of them suffered a drastic fall after December 2020, roughly returning to January 2020 levels in January 2021.

BARC’s ardent critics in the TV news industry conceded that the suspension of ratings had some impact, but also argued that it hasn’t kept prominent advertisers away from news. FMCG brands like Godrej and Emami are currently advertising with News18 and Aaj Tak, as are the state governments of Delhi and Uttar Pradesh with India TV and Zee News. But two companies that have advertised on almost all news channels in the past few months are Patanjali and Amazon. News Laundary

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