Channel wars heating up in the harsh glare of television news arc lights

Lakshmana Venkat Kuchi
The journalist of over three decades in me is sad today that journalists, along with covering the news, are becoming the news themselves.
Now in the harsh glare of media spotlight are a few media houses themselves, for allegedly gaming the Television Rating Points (TRPs) based on which advertising rates are determined and revenues of the television houses are earned.
Which means a television channel with higher TRPs will attract more advertisers and get better advertising rates, and more revenues, than one with lower TRPs.
Now the way TRPs are arrived at are through a few thousand barometers installed at the residences to monitor television viewing, hours, and channels. The data emerging out of these barometers is processed by the machines to arrive at TRPs for each channel on air. Similarly, even TV programmes get ratings, again which guide the advertising spend. So a programme with more TRPs will earn more advertising revenue.
The households where these barometers are installed is a secret, known only to Broadcast Audience Research Council (BARC) or the agency it entrusts this activity. In the past too, there were allegations of TRP fixing, when a premier English language TV channel made complaints with facts, way back in 2008. But nothing came out of it. What that complaint and the consequent actions did was to create more awareness of the issue, but overall, the television industry continued to soldier on even as suspicions that few channels played the dirty game grew.
Today, the issue has come to the fore once again, the TRP game that is, as the Mumbai Police claimed to have busted a TRP racket, running into some hundreds of crores of Rupees, with the arrest of four persons associated with two local Mumbai TV channels. What is more, the Mumbai police also levelled allegations of serious misconduct by reputed television channels to game the TRP machines to reap huge advertising revenues that is the bread and butter of the TV channel business.
Mumbai police set the tongues wagging with its sensational charges and in fact triggered a channel war, with very prominent television journalists hurling charges against each other. Since television news is intricately linked to politics, which is one of the key areas of news coverage in the country, the political parties also jumped in, each interpreting the situation to suit itself and its political ideological position.
The two principal National political parties on the opposite ends, the ruling BJP and the Opposition Congress, have naturally waded into the controversy, with both flexing their respective political muscle in favour of their current favourites.
The social media, which is also populated by most of the players active in the television ecosystem, too erupted into a war of opinions and exchange of allegations and calls for action against the other side.
The Mumbai police chief left no one in doubt that the police intended to get into the depth of the issue and take “further course of action” against everyone found to be involved in the racket. “Whoever or howsoever highly placed a person might be in the television channels suspected to be involved in the scam would not be spared,” was the firm assertion from the police chief that sent the TV news channel environment into a tizzy. Already, the Court has agreed with the police remand application for custodial interrogation and sent them into police custody for five days.
Now faced with the prospects of a similar action, the senior personnel of one of the channels named in the scam, has gone ballistic against the police officer in question and alleged that it was his retaliatory action for the bold coverage of  recent news events that exposed the wrongdoings of the Mumbai police.
Unfazed the police officials maintain that theirs was a professional investigation that will stop at nothing and will find the underlying cause of the scandal. The police have interpreted the scam to say that the channel people by gaming the TRP meters have also earned money illegally and that would be detected and declared as “proceeds of crime”. Which is why, the police said it would be examining the books and bank accounts of the company in due course of time as investigations progress further.
This TRP meter tampering is not just limited to Mumbai or Maharashtra. If the Mumbai police chief is to be believed, it was being done all over India for securing higher ratings for the financial benefit of the channels and hence would require investigations at the National level as well.
Clearly, the TRP fraud is much bigger than was earlier anticipated, and what has come out from the Mumbai police investigations is just the tip of the iceberg.
Now the channels may cry foul and charge the police with carrying on a witch hunt, but for many viewers and the people at large on twitter are glad that the news anchors, for a change, are at the receiving end. Even the viewer wants to know the truth is the sentiment that comes across from a sample of reactions on twitter.
But yes there are also people who believe that TRP gaming is as old as the profession, and that it was the worst kept secret of the television broadcast industry, and that the police have only stepped in to teach the media a lesson. There are people who subscribe to this theory.
The police have stirred up the hornet’s nest and will have to work really hard to make its allegations stick, with evidence to back its charges in a Court of law. For the present the lower Court has given its approval to hold the four accused in its custody for interrogation and investigations, but making the charges of cheating, conspiracy and breach of trust stick is another matter.
The timing of the police action, though based on a formal complaint it received from BARC, is something that the accused channel will question. Coming as it does immediately after the channel’s critical coverage of the Mumbai police and its allegedly shoddy investigations into the accidental death report of a film star, the police action runs the risk of being interpreted as vendetta.
The channel threatens to expose the police and file criminal defamation suit against the police as well as all the television channels that have aired the news that maligned its reputation and brand name.
In this powerplay in the media being played out under the arc lights of the television media, it will be interesting to see all the twists and turns the case takes. As the viewers of television news, we only want to see the truth, presented in the most objective form possible.
Is it an utopian dream -- something that is too much to ask for ?

Lakshmana Venkat Kuchi is a senior journalist tracking social, economic, and political changes across the country. He was associated with the Press Trust of India, The Hindu, Sunday Observer and Hindustan Times.  He can be reached on [email protected] and Twitter handle @kvlakshman