Wednesday, February 05, 2014

The big media ratings racket: A time to blow the whistle

Media reports suggest that the BJP, today riding high among punters on the election results, is in the final stages of identifying the agency that will  handle its massive advertising budget – estimated at ₹ 400 crore -- in the upcoming electoral contests. And the advertising function today is of course, organised in two distinct halves: there is the so-called “creative” agency which designs the ad and the media buyer who determines where it should be placed.

Among the agencies believed to be on the BJP shortlist for the creative function is McCann Erickson. And the front-runner among the media buyers is Lodestar. At first sight, it seems like a great idea to divide up functions between distinct enterprises, so that clients obtain best service. The only problem here is that McCann is part of the global advertising conglomerate Interpublic, headquartered in the U.S. And Lodestar is a media buying agency owned within the same chain of multinational capital.

The multinational claim to handling the business of a party that ostensibly represents the true and unsullied face of Indian nationalism, is unlikely to go unchallenged. The most likely competitor for the creative function is reportedly Contract Advertising. And Group M is apparently bidding strongly to acquire the media buying contract.

Once again, we have a picture of a competitive free enterprise system working to ensure best value for all, except for one inconvenient fact: both Contract and Group M belong to the WPP group, headquartered in London.

When the Congress party was seeking to identify the TV channel on which its young prince should first be featured, it looked at the audience ratings available and picked out TimesNow. It went by audience measurement statistics available from TAM Ltd, a joint venture of AC Nielsen and Kantar.

This too would be okay, except that Kantar is – if the repetition could be pardoned – part of the WPP group. And Nielsen is owned by a number of private equity investors who are just interested in squeezing it for profit. As the broadcast enterprise NDTV pointed out in a petition filed before the Supreme Court of New York in July 2012, Nielsen is starved of funds just from servicing its investors’ debts. It is simply in no position to deliver services committed to clients.

In December 2013, the newspaper industry had its own moment of indecent public exposure. The prelude to this of course, is a long and tortured history when every so-called “readership survey” was the occasion for bitter recrimination between newspaper groups which found their vanity either punctured or insufficiently pampered. After a long hiatus when the industry could not agree on how best to proceed with the audience research that would guide ad spending, the contract for the Indian Readership Survey last year was awarded, in defiance of its sloppy track record and dubious ownership pattern, to Kantar.

Soon after the IRS results were declared for the last quarter of 2013, an unprecedented coalition of newspaper groups that were otherwise constantly sniping at each other, came together to denounce the findings as sloppy, unreliable and perhaps, corrupted at source.

Early in this century, the newspaper industry was torn by a phony war between those who ardently believed in foreign capital as the only remedy for its ills and others who took a stand on what seemed high nationalist principle, demanding that alien interests be kept out of this one vital sector where the national political discourse was carried out.

While the newspaper industry was engaged in these skirmishes over FDI, a major operational manoeuvre was executed on its flanks, leading in effect to its complete encirclement by foreign interests. Being narrowly focused on the issue of ownership, the newspaper lobby failed to recognise the signals from a policy move initiated in 2001 with little public debate or discussion, when the doors were opened up for 100 percent foreign investment in ad agencies and market research firms.

At a time when over 65 percent of total newspaper industry revenue came from advertising – and ad placement decisions depended crucially on the results that market research firms turned in – these policy decisions passed without even a cursory examination in terms of longer-term implications.

With media industry fortunes today in parlous state, ad agencies have greater opportunity than ever before to influence editorial agendas. When ratings agencies that guide ad spending are themselves integrated into the same global chain of capital, the impact on media agendas and indeed, on the political discourse, could be profoundly adverse.

Waking up to the absurdity of the situation, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting on January 16 issued a number of guidelines that agencies in the TV ratings business would have to conform to. These norms, completely unexceptionable on any objective consideration, would need to be operationalised by February 15.

The guidelines require that ratings agencies would have to be transparent in terms of ownership and methodology. Any possible conflicts of interests – as with cross-ownership involving ad agencies and media buying – would have to be eliminated.

Unwilling to shed the habits learnt over several years of conspicuous policy default and lax public oversight, Kantar petitioned the Delhi High Court to secure a stay on the new TV rating guidelines. At a hearing on January 29, the court declined to grant a stay, but scheduled another hearing for February 11, four days prior to when the new guidelines are supposed to take effect.

With very little time left for a full hearing of the matter, the Indian media industry is likely to enter the election season – and deal with the expected bonanza of ad spending – without a reliable system to ensure its fair distribution.

Multinational ad conglomerates in other words, could continue determining the media agenda and with it, the tone of the public discourse, as the country enters an election that is likely to be the most intensely fought in a long time.

The Citizen: India's 1st Independent Online Daily