That overrated viewership data

Last Updated: Sun, Dec 30, 2012 20:20 hrs

When it was announced in October that the release of the Television Audience Measurement (TAM) data for nearly next 10 weeks would be suspended to ensure smooth transition from the analogue to digital platform, some broadcasters and agencies welcomed the announcement. The lack of data would be an opportunity to do quality work without thinking of ratings, they said. Is the industry suffering from data fatigue? Is it time the media industry gave equal credence to good old-fashioned managerial judgement?

Ashish Bhasin
CEO & Chairman, south east asia, aegis media

After spending 25 years in the industry, spanning creative, integrated marketing, digital and media sides of the advertising business, I can guarantee that research in India is very often poorly used. The prime reason for this is that we forget that any form of research is just another input for a manager to make a well-informed decision. It is neither a crutch to be leaned upon, nor a substitute for decision making. The difference between a poor manager and a good one is often demonstrated by their use of available research. The former will either not use research or decry the research available, or conversely treat it as gospel and suspend his common sense for decision making.

The absence of data and research is never a good thing, particularly when, as in the case of the TAM viewership data—it is the accepted currency on which the industry operates. However, the suspension of the reporting of TAM data for a cause that would benefit the industry as a whole (that is, digitisation) and because it was for a tightly time-bound period supported by all the stakeholders, there was less pain.

Even though the data from TAM is far from perfect, it is a valuable input for a media planner to make an informed decision. It should never be a substitute to managerial judgement but be an input for sharpening it. Most professional media agencies will have several such inputs. The most common form is to get regular feedback through personal observation, market and consumer visits, using a network of agency employees to record their observations, internal and external research and so on. We often forget that all these also constitute inputs for making a good judgement.

Here’s what we are doing. Aegis Media has the global CCS (Consumer Connection System) study, which, for the first time, has been done in India and is already available to our agencies like Carat India and Vizeum India. This is perhaps India’s first single-source study of this scale, with a global sample size of nearly 2 lakh, customised for India and carried out in the Top 18 markets in India, accounting for 75-80 per cent of spends in most categories. It gives qualitative inputs but with a quantitative sample size. Of course, it’s a huge investment but media agencies need to make these kind of investments to improve their decision-making and to prevent themselves from being blindly dependent on just viewership data.

Hopefully, if media agencies in India start building internal capabilities for data gathering, the blind dependence on just one source of data, like TAM viewer figures, will reduce and the emphasis will shift to gathering inputs from several sources while making managerial decisions. This will not only improve the output for the client but will also further enrich the job of a media professional.

Of course, it would mean that we will need better quality of people in media planning and buying. I have found that with proper investments by the agency in research and quality training, many are able to make this transition. However, there will be a few who are in the habit of using data as a crutch and have got too comfortable hiding behind incomprehensible excel sheets. Maybe there will be no place for them in the new world of media planning and buying but then Darwin did say only the fittest will survive. The same will also apply to agencies and one can clearly witness that when you see large, legacy-based, old fashioned media agencies struggle.

To summarise, in my view, data and research, including viewership data, is extremely important. However, it should be just one of the inputs. The advertising and media agencies must invest in a lot of other inputs. But of utmost importance is the understanding that all these are just inputs, not substitutes for managerial decision-making. Thankfully so, because otherwise computers would be running advertising and media agencies, not qualified and experienced managers.

Anwesh Bose
Senior VP, DDB MudraMax Media

These days, the Indian advertising and media industry is full of TAM clerks (read slaves) who swear by TAM viewership numbers. When you are handling something as unpredictable and intangible as communication, data serves the purpose of only supporting an argument. Therefore, the business of advertising has been largely driven by gut feel.

During the late-90s, when there were fewer choices, media planners used to rely on National Readership Survey (NRS) data and track social conversations. For instance, everybody knew that shows like Tara and Saanp Seedi were popular on Zee. In those days, planners had to have an understanding of statistics, mathematics, economics and marketing. From the time data became automated, dependence on software increased.

In the last seven years, the so-called new-age workforce in media agencies was made to eat, breathe and sleep the ideology of overdependence on a single source of data. Today, it’s more about media buying than planning. And the so-called planner’s only credential is the ability to work around TAM data. Social conversations were happening even at the time when there was no TAM currency, nor Facebook and Twitter. Data is significant to the understanding of the importance of the right programming for a particular advertiser. However, the numbers should not be followed blindly.

Besides, what’s the veracity of this data? TAM’s sample size of 8,000-plus households cannot reflect the viewership pattern for an entire country. Today people watch TV on PC, tablet and mobile handsets. Who is taking into account this viewership shift towards this multiple-device consumption in urban homes? Not TAM. In recent times, both NDTV and Bloomberg TV have had issues with TAM’s data. A lot of clients raised questions about what they were buying into. The Union information and broadcasting ministry had set October 31 as the deadline for digitisation of cable television in Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai. What made TAM suspend data for rest of the cities?

While the Indian Readership Survey allows third-party audits, there is no such option available for TAM subscribers. Obviously, there is something fishy. According to me, while a majority of the industry supports TAM data, only 10 per cent are confident of their ability to carry on without TAM numbers. Doordarshan has the widest reach in India but nobody wants to talk about it. While all channels are more than happy to negotiate ad rates, Doordarshan works with its indispensible rate card. They face inventory shortage round the year as advertisers cannot ignore them at any cost. There are many advertisers who are willing to spend money on cable television without being bothered about viewership data. In fact, the suspension of data for about two months now has been a boon as a lot of clients have stopped fretting about viewership numbers only. Barring a few leaders, a majority of the industry is not supporting the cause of independent research.

To address these issues, agencies need to set up research panels internally. Viewership does not change from week to week. It makes sense to look at the data of four weeks at one go. Everything boils down to who will make the investment. Broadcasters, agencies and advertisers should collaborate to come up with a much larger research. This would be in their mutual interest. Monopoly is at the heart of this problem. Everybody knows what happened to aMap (Audience Measurement & Analytics) which shut down operations in India last year. If the government gives a nod, master MSOs (multi-system operators) can collect data with the help of software. Viewership research must come from an autonomous body not aligned to any corporate house.

TAM is a profit-making body and is owned by a group that has direct interests in the advertising business. This is not healthy and the controversies have only made everyone view TAM with a lot of suspicion. What is required is an independent body/third party that is non-profit making (like Media Research User Council) to drive an unbiased and robust research initiative. The agencies, advertisers and broadcasters have already made a start and we look forward to a new dawn in viewership research.

More from Sify: