My mother-in-law and media measurement

Vanita Kohli-KhandekarLast month my mother-in-laws’s gold chain was snatched. The plucky Mrs Khandekar, all of a sprightly 87, came home and dialled 100. Soon there were half a dozen policemen in our house. After over two hours of chatting they wrote down the complaint but kept dissuading us from filing an FIR. They asked us to think it over. When we called the next day to say we wanted to file an FIR, two policemen came around for a chat that lasted almost four hours. They were very polite but they just would not file the FIR no matter what we said.

I understand where the policemen were coming from. There are several chain-snatchings in our part of Delhi every day. If they filed FIRs for every one of them, the crime statistics would go haywire.

The media industry has a long history of treating metrics in a cavalier fashion. That is now beginning to show on content.
Aftermath: The media industry has a long history of treating metrics in a cavalier fashion. That is now beginning to show on content.

You could argue that not registering the case does not help tackle the crime or its cause. Without raw data how will patterns on the kind of crimes, where they are happening, what times of day etc emerge. These could help deal with the problem.

That is the theory.

By refusing to even acknowledge the crime on its books the police is in effect fixing the crime metrics. This is no different from TV channels which refuse to acknowledge that their programming is bad and try to fix the ratings or blame the rating agency. There is a national chorus against TAM, the television rating agency. But strangely no industry body has been aggressive about overhauling the mechanism or demanding a better service. Not a single broadcaster has stopped buying the data. Only one, NDTV, has sued TAM’s parent Nielsen in the US.

It is routine for newspapers to tom-tom their readership numbers in a good year and or crib about ‘dodgy methodology’ in bad years. It is only now after great amounts of talk that there is a proposal to rehaul the methodology. But the change will take several years.

Many newspapers jump in and out of circulation audits. These audits certify how many copies a newspaper sells. If a paper wants to cut costs it decides to cap circulation. Newsprint prices are high and selling more copies is expensive. So it makes more sense to stay out of the audit.

If media owners do not care about how data is captured, how many copies they sell, how many and what kind of readers or viewers they have, how will they ever understand what audiences and advertisers want. Doesn’t it matter?

It doesn’t, for now.

It doesn’t matter to the media owners because readership, circulation or ratings are used to get advertisers. They form the main source of revenue for most media companies. The audience is just the statistic. Now add another factor — there is too much competition. In news television alone there are over 133 channels fighting for a stagnant Rs 2,000 crore ad pie. It is easier to ignore the metric or fix it instead of spending time and effort making good content to get and keep audiences.

It doesn’t matter to the audience either. One hour of television in India costs just fifty paisa per person. It is silly to expect world class quality for that. You could argue that we cannot expect Indian homes to pay $45 for a month of television a la the US. But at $3 a month we are one of the cheapest TV countries in the world. So the audience is in a sense getting what it pays for. In films where audiences are paying $3-5 for a ticket up from 50 cents to a dollar, quality has improved.

There is no right or wrong in this. It is just a stage of evolution. Once purchasing power improves, audiences evolve and the market structure changes, thanks to digitisation, you will see more innovation in content. But without a robust methodology for capturing that change, most media owners will be lost.

Why then blame the cops for something we in media are blasé about doing — ignoring evidence.

The writer is a media specialist and author. Follow her on twitter at 

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