Last month, Republic TV and two other Marathi Channels were busted for manipulating TRP ratings that influence advertising revenue, sparking a conversation about the legitimacy of TRP ratings, and it’s ethics.
TRP or Television Rating points is a commonly used metric by advertisers to decide which channel to run adverts on. It shows advertisers data on the channel’s viewers and provides a more nuanced understanding of which channel is being watched by most viewers, along with some information on the viewer demographic, so that companies can effectively decide where to post their advertisements. The higher the TRP, the higher likelihood of receiving marketing investment, ultimately increasing profits.
This is not the first time that TRPs have been tampered with, as many similar cases have come to light in the recent past. Despite that, the conversation surrounding TRP and its inefficiencies have remained insufficient and are only now beginning to gain some traction. Dr. S.Y. Quraishi, the ex-Chief Election Commission and Director General of Doordarshan, has been following the issue since the early 2000s and believes that the current system is brimming with treachery. As the director-general of Doordarshan, he found that many private channels were announcing unrealistically high TRP rates, blocking investments towards Doordarshan. At the time, he found that only 2000 meters were being used to calculate TRP for the entire country. For a country of 1 billion people, that’s a sample size too small to give an accurate representation of the population, and in recent years, that number has only gone up to 40,000. A bigger issue, however, was that information on the homes that had installed the meters was easily available, allowing companies to reach out and possibly bribe them to watch their channels more. With such a small sample size, it is much easier to manipulate TRPs ratings. If just two or three households are paid to watch a certain channel 24 hours a day, the TRP ratings of that channel could drastically increase, bringing them more investment.
Even if we ignore these cases of manipulation, the use of TRP to measure the value of news has many drawbacks. With increased competition and the dependency on a system where news channels have to compete for every second of viewership, it’s difficult to continue making profits without submitting to bad journalism. Unfortunately, fake news, controversy, and sensationalism do a much better job at engaging people than true and often uncomfortable stories that good journalism brings with it, and therefore, it’s difficult for television news to remain authentic.
According to Vikram Chandra, founder of Editorji Technologies and former CEO of NDTV, this is the big existentialist dilemma that haunts news channels today: do you provide good news, lose money and possibly go bankrupt, or do you get the TRP, make money but put out bad content instead? As long as news channels are dependent on TRP, the low-quality of news will remain, which raises the question of whether we should be using a user metric to determine the value of news at all.
Journalism is often said to be a public good, the fourth pillar of a functioning democracy, because, without informed citizens, a democracy simply won’t work. Just like other public goods, journalism too, cannot be left on the free market, as we are seeing the results of a complete reliance on user demand. What would happen if other public goods, such as education, ran the same way? Schools and education curriculums designed based on what parents and children want to learn and believe are facts. In a best-case scenario, this would result in a fall in the quality of education, and in the worst-case scenario, students from different schools would learn completely different facts, have a completely different understanding of the world, and ultimately live in different realities altogether.
Many argue that the solution to this is to regulate or subsidize journalism. However, this could end up posing a threat to free speech. Therefore, the big question for us is whether we can escape the user-metric at all.
The solution to this, according to Vikram Chandra, is to balance the two. He believes it’s time to move away from television completely and shift to newer technologies that allow for the personalization of news, whilst also balancing news that one should hear. Use a user-metric and give people the stories that they are interested in, however, along with that, also give people news that they need to read regardless of their interests or political beliefs so that people don’t end up in echo chambers.
The use of AI and algorithms may be the solution to keeping audiences engaged without distributing sensationalized news or tabloid content is by personalizing news. However, it’s a solution that still lives in the future. Until then, the only solution we have is to use our power as consumers and support news channels that provide good quality news despite the challenges of the TRP system.
Aradhya is a student of Psychology, Biology and Media Studies at Ashoka University.
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