TRPs for Cash?

How unethical players in the media industry collude with unscrupulous executives to manipulate TRPs. An investigative report by Tehelka SIT

In a country like India where there are numerous television channels, how do you find out which ones are viewed more than the others? In comes TRP or Television Rating Point – a tool that is used to gauge the viewership of television programmes. In simple terms, TRP gives an idea of how many people are watching a particular programme or advertisement. But how reliable are TRPs in India ? Can they be fixed to the benefit of a particular channel ? Can people be bribed to view a channel or programme in order to improve TRP ratings ?

In 2018, a case was registered against seven people in Gwalior, of which three have been arrested, for illegally fixing TRP ratings in Madhya Pradesh in favour of a particular Hindi TV news channel. Those involved in this scam had installed TRP [Television Rating Point] meters in a number of households and offered them monetary benefits to watch only a particular Hindi news channel. The motive behind it was to enhance the TRP ratings of the channel through fraudulent means. In 2012, another agency responsible for giving TRP ratings in India was sued by another leading Hindi news channel for fixing TV ratings. Later, it was replaced by Broadcast Audience Research Council [BARC ] India, formed by the broadcasters, advertisers and ad agencies. Presently BARC releases ratings to the industry, after its appointed vendors supply data to them from the people meters or bar-o-meters installed at people’s homes, which decide the fate of Rs 32,000 crore spending on TV advertising in India.

In October 2020, BARC was forced to suspend ratings after allegations that the channel ratings were rigged by a few influential broadcasters. TRP manipulation surfaced when Mumbai police busted a racket based on complaints received from BARC and Hansa, a consumer insights company and one of the vendors of the agency, about “suspicious trends”. On January 13, 2022, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting asked BARC to release viewership ratings of news channels with immediate effect.

In the wake of the allegations that TRP ratings were being fixed in India, Tehelka carried out an investigation, before the Mumbai police busted a racket based on the complaints received from BARC and Hansa about the “suspicious trends”, resulting in startling revelations. The investigation probed a number of players spread across India, who were ready to fix a channel’s ratings in return for money. They have various offers of different rates. Posing as the owner of a yet to be launched news channel, we first met a Multi System Operator [MSO] having more than 150,000 set top boxes in the capital of a big Indian State.  The MSO owns another company. He came to meet us in Delhi with the CEO of his company, Rahul Sharma [name changed] and the national head  of his sister company, Rajiv Singh [name changed]. Both of his firms were engaged in media distribution and ad sales. On the condition of not mentioning his name, the MSO, Pankaj Singh [name changed] had no hesitation in saying that he was into distribution and TRP fixing. He said he will do our channel distribution plus help us meet people who are fixing TRPs by installing people meters at homes. From the word go, Pankaj Singh told the name of a news channel to Tehelka which manipulated its TRP as soon as it went on the air.

We told Pankaj that we are moving on two things. The first is distribution and the second is how to get ratings. “How can you help us with that?,” we asked him.  In reply to this, Pankaj said, “ Sir, in my view – and I may be wrong but I am just giving my suggestion – because we are in both distribution as well as sales, there’s a perception in the market. See when that channel was launched and no doubt it put in a lot of funding. At the same time, they managed the ground for that rating part also.”  Was it able to manage? Are you sure?  In reply to this, Pankaj said “ Yes, yes, of course. Everybody knows in the market”. When asked how did it manage? Pankaj replied, “It happens, sir. It is easy. It’s not a big thing. It can be done, “You are saying that the channel managed the TRPs?” In reply to this, Pankaj said, “ TRPs..Yes. That can be done. Many people do it.”

When probed further, Pankaj now explained how rating is fixed and also offered us to execute it for our purported future news channel. He said, “That has to be (for sure will be) done. But we’ll do it slowly, step by step because everybody will be watching. If our rating rises 5 to 10 percent [abruptly] for whatever reason or content, people will immediately start writing to the agency which gives ratings, asking how the spike had happened”.

When asked how they are doing it, Pankaj explained that the promotional campaign for the new programme is used as a ruse to justify higher ratings. “What we did last time was …they asked us to launch different…different content in programming. If it is a talk show, and you do it with a celebrity, then you have to come up with your advertisement plus some newspapers [commercial] or ads on hoardings. And then they will give you a spike. Suppose, they give you a spike of 10 gross ratings points [GRPs]. In the next week, they will drop the GRPs by two, three or four points. Then again they will give [an increase of] seven, eight GRPs”.

Actually, BARC surveys are based on household samples across diverse locations of the country. Each fitted with what is called a Bar-O-Meter. This device captures embedded audio signals from TV events in real time. Transmits them to BARC India server wirelessly for processing TRPs in real time. But if Pankaj is to be believed, ground staff engaged in installing Bar-O-Meters bribe households to watch selected channels or programming. When asked whether manipulation is being done through meters or what? Pankaj replied “They have the list of households fitted with meters. They will ask the consumers to watch that particular channel”.

Now, Pankaj offered to play middlemen in TRP rigging. He told us that he would introduce us to the people who will give us a presentation on how the TRPs will be fixed.  “They have their own tariff cards. So it’s nothing big. If through a contact, we meet them, they will give you the entire presentation about how things will work. Like what will be their cost [price] per week for what we want; where we want to take the TRPs of uur channels from their current levels. So, it’s not a big deal. They have their tariff charts prepared”.

But when asked whether they will do it for us as well if they are doing for other channels, Pankaj replied, “It’s a money game”.

“TRP manipulation is a money game,” Pankaj told Tehelka. And confessed that he himself did the same for a news channel years ago. “We did it for one channel for a week. We had a word with them. Then even they were interested. For a week. They had the same content and nothing additional for three-four weeks. But I offered them five to ten GRP spike. Then I gave it to them… for a week or two”.

Pankaj confessed that for a week he had inflated the ratings of a particular news channel, “Yes, I inflated their ratings. They immediately gave money because we showed them what all had happened. When the deal was on, then the rating went up automatically every week or ten days. When the agency report came, the change was visible”.

We had a second meeting with Pankaj Singh. This time in Chennai. During the meeting, Pankaj made a stunning claim. He offered to jack up TRPs of any channel fraudulently in a matter of two weeks. “You take any one channel, whichever you decide. We will study its ratings of the past six-eight weeks. Then I will talk to them as to how we can get numbers on that. They will provide some solution,” said Pankaj.

When clarified further whether we have to suggest any channel, Hindi or English, for boosting its TRPs, Pankaj replied “Yeah. You have to give”.

In the south itself, we found another big multi-system operator, Suresh Babu [name changed], engaged in wheeling and dealing in TRPs. We met him through Pankaj Singh. A senior executive of the cable company, Suresh claimed to have as many as 400,000 set-top boxes under his distribution across various southern zones. Suresh too admitted that he has full knowledge about where all the Bar-O-Meters are installed.

A meeting was arranged where we told Suresh that we are launching a new English news channel. And we have good friends who are already running their channels here, English national and pan India channels. So, we want the TRPs of their channels raised. How to do that? That’s why we want to know how he will help us in doing that? In reply to this, Suresh said he had more than 40 to 50 percent of Bar-O-Meters under his control. “How much rating do you want?,”  asks Suresh. We told him we want maximum TRPs.

Suresh not only claimed that he had all information about Bar-O-Meter locations, he also owned up boosting X News (name changed) ratings. “But nowadays X News has secured second place, because of what we are doing. It will come number one within three months,” boasted Suresh.

When queried whether, within three months, X TV [News] will become number one?, Suresh replied, “Yeah, because, they were, you know, at the seventh place in the past for eight months.”

When asked how he managed to raise the TRP of that news channel, Suresh replied, “I will give a certain time for [to the] people. Morning 7 to 7.30. We go to one place, they have more than 25 boxes, Bar-O-Meter. They are told every day you must watch”.

When asked whether he knows where BARC meters are positioned ? Suresh replied “Yeah, all over the state. Not only in one region. All over the state. I have the information.”

As the meeting progressed, Suresh revealed his modus operandi. He would have his teams touch base with metered households, to bribe them into turning on select TV programming. “After that, I will give some brief to consumers,” said Suresh. When asked whether he himself meets consumers, Suresh replied, “No. We are not going to them directly. We have some people, men and some ladies, in that area. I would select them, and then they are briefed.”

The TRP boosting tactics are clear. Cable distributors access information about Bar-O-Meters households from their sources. Then field staff is outsourced next to buy out the viewership on behalf of select broadcasters. In Suresh’s words it’s all a business.

During the talk, Suresh at one time looked apprehensive of sharing information with us. He said, “I want one thing clear. I don’t know before this meeting who you are. Where you are from. I have fears. You are asking me my secrets of business. I am also afraid, scared”. But he got convinced after knowing that Pankaj Singh and his friends will look after the distribution and sales for our upcoming channel. He was reassured when we told him that we were introduced to him by them only.

Then we asked him how he got to know about the meters? Where are the meters positioned? In response to this, Suresh said, “Simply, I have come to know about it. In future, they could introduce new meters also. I will be knowing about them also. They will increase the number. They insert a thousand more per year. When I started, they had only 800-1000 boxes. Now, they have more than 4000 boxes in the southern state”.

Suresh not only divulged the modus operandi, but also named a news channel which is one of its clients. “I say – News,” said Suresh. But when told that these are regional news channels which he was talking about. Then we asked him whether other than regional ones, any national news channel was his client? In response to this, Suresh said, “Eight months ago, I worked with Y Channel (name changed), But it would not come directly. It comes through some other friends”.

When asked whether he helped that news channel in getting higher TRPs? Suresh said,  “Yeah”. He further said, “If you have to improve your channel, not only in the southern state, but in the south region also, I will do it”.

This cable-distribution executive got a bit hesitant for some time, but soon he was relaxed and disclosed his payment model for clients soliciting fake TRPs. “The payment mode is only weekly, because ratings come on Thursday, and possibly payment is made before Friday night. Because it’s then only that I will [will be able to] distribute all money on Saturday and Sunday. On those days, BARC people are not coming. They don’t visit entire areas on Saturday, Sunday. First of all, [it’s] compulsory you must pay [every] Friday, if we are doing [it for you],” said Suresh.

Suresh now revealed the amount he is charging from the regional news channel for raising their TRPs. “ From —- News, I am charging Rs 4 lakh weekly. For —– News only, not —-TV. I  give [gave] surety to them of minimum 20 TRPs”.

By his own admission, Suresh charged Rs 4 lakh a week from —- News to inflate its TRP. He now spoke about his arrangement with the national news channel. “With … TV, I have one problem. They had two people in between me and them,” said Suresh. When asked whether he was not having direct contact with the national news channel, Suresh replied, “ This is direct. But there are two main reasons that I have gotten relieved from them. One reason is money is not paid correctly and at the correct time. And second, money is lower. Low value money for me”. When asked whether he was getting less amount? Suresh replied, “Yeah, less amount. Because in-between me and —-TV-, some people – two people – secured our part, more or less.”

In simple words, Suresh fixed TRPs for national news channels, but in return did not get that much amount? “Yeah. Simply says [to put it simply] I received only Rs 2 lakh per week. In my hands only Rs 2 lakh coming [came ] from —-TV,” said Suresh.

When asked how much money Suresh will distribute to the people’s households if we give him a fixed amount of Rs 4 lakh, Suresh replied “I will distribute 70 to 75 percent. Only 25 percent will remain for me and my colleagues”.

We now met Sandeep Sonkar, [name changed]  in Mumbai, who claimed to be a manager from a top agency. This meeting was held through Rahul Sharma and Rajiv Singh, the two associates of Pankaj Singh. Like others, we told Sandeep also that we need higher TRP for our purported upcoming news channel, right from the word go.  According to Sandeep, greasing the palms of unscrupulous executives regularly is what it takes for some to maintain the number one position on the rating chart. “Yes. If you want to stay at number one, you stay that way. You have to keep playing the GRP game. That’s what I am saying, it’s not a T-20 game. It’s a proper Test match,” said Sandeep.

When probed further, Sandeep suggested that he would inform either Rahul or Rajiv about their meters’ location. These people will then have a survey done to determine whether our channel is available in those areas or not. “See, you have a box but your channel is not available. So how can I work there to improve the ratings? These people will go there to survey whether your channel is available or not,” said Sandeep. And if our channel is not available there, they will have it beamed immediately in those areas. “Fine. But if it is not seen there, then that means it’s available elsewhere. So we will improvise that situation,” adds Sandeep.

Unethical players in the media industry collude with unscrupulous executives, who in turn disclose locations of Bar-O-Meters in order to enable them to bribe households into watching their broadcast for higher TRPs. When asked what kind of gifts were offered, Sandeep said, “It can be either cash or kind”.

Much before BARC “temporarily suspended” the ratings on the news genre following a ‘cash for ratings’ scam allegedly involving a top executive of a private news channel, Tehelka caught hold of many players spread across the news industry ready to fix TRPs in exchange for money. Before the TRP rigging scam broke out in October 2020, players connected with the TRP business were ready to catch hold of the people who are looking to fix TRPs of their channels. They used to have their rate cards ready with various offers to raise TRPs. They were ready to rig the ratings by inducing the homes where the monitors were placed. This is what police have also alleged after the TRP scam broke out in October 2020 and led to the arrest of several people.

Nearly 17 months after the mega TRP manipulation scam erupted in Mumbai, the BARC  has resumed the ratings for individual news channels. People hope that with the revised approved standards, players connected with the TRP rigging will not become active again with their revised rate cards, with revised offers  of  ‘TRPs for cash’.