There is something eerie and intimidating about how the Mumbai Police have gone about trying to silence one of the most vociferous critics of the Maharashtra coalition headed by the Shiv Sena: Arnab Goswami of Republic TV.
On Thursday (8 October), Mumbai Police Commissioner Param Bir Singh directly accused the channel of manipulating its TRPs (television rating points) in order to garner high advertising revenues.
Four people involved in such manipulation, one former employee of Hansa Research, which is involved in the monitoring of TRPs on behalf of the Broadcast Audience Research Council (BARC), two small channel owners, of Fakth Marathi and Box Cinema, and an ex-staffer of a film production firm have been arrested for this “crime”.
Republic TV has only been verbally targeted, but not yet touched.
The “crime”, according to Singh, relates to the payment of sums ranging from Rs 400-700 to some TV households in Mumbai in order to keep their sets on for the beneficiary channels. TRPs are derived from what “peoplemeters”, placed in such households, record about which member is watching which programme and for how much time.
Singh claimed that advertising money derived from such TRP manipulations will be treated as “proceeds of crime” and the channels prosecuted accordingly. Cases under IPC sections 120 (criminal conspiracy), 400 (criminal breach of trust) and 420 (cheating) are being used against the channels and Hansa ex-employee.
The arrests of some small fry should fool no one. It is a covert message to Goswami and Republic TV that “we can do that to you, too.”
It is touching that the Mumbai Police is so concerned about advertisers being cheated by Goswami or other channels just when Republic TV has been aggressively targeting the Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi (MVA), Sonia Gandhi and the Congress party for alleged police lapses in the lynching of two sadhus near the Gujarat-Maharashtra border last April, the Sushant Singh Rajput suicide case (or was it murder?) in June, etc.
Soon after Goswami launched his direct and trademark attacks on the MVA, Sonia Gandhi and the Shiv Sena, the Mumbai police summoned him for interrogation and kept him tied up for 12 hours – an unheard of process adopted with the owner and chief anchor of one of the nation’s most-watched channels.
Around the same time, two motorcycle-borne persons attacked Goswami’s car when he was returning home from the studio with his wife. No one was hurt, though attempts were made to smash the car’s glass.
Last month, the Shiv Sena sent letters to cable operators in Mumbai, asking them to take Republic TV off the air. According to a report, the Sena’s cable operators’ wing sent letters to Hathway, UCN Cable, Den Networks, InCablenet, and at least six other cable companies demanding a ban on Republic TV in their networks.
If anybody thinks there is no pattern to these incidents, all of which target Arnab Goswami and his channel, he or she must be incredibly naive.
The questions that the Mumbai Police Commissioner needs to answer are at least as many as the ones they will pose to Arnab Goswami or his channel and its alleged participation in TRP manipulation.
One, assuming there was TRP manipulation, can Param Bir Singh name the complainant – which ought to be an advertiser or channel rival who was cheated by Goswami’s “manipulated” TRPs? If no advertiser complained to the police (as opposed to BARC or Hansa), we are essentially talking of a victimless crime. The persons “cheated” were advertisers and rival channels.
Two, BARC uses 44,000 peoplemeters, of which 2,000 were in Mumbai, according to The Times of India. One presumes only a small number of the 2,000 meters were in slums or with people who will keep their TVs on for Republic TV for considerations as low as Rs 400-700 a month. Even assuming half the 2,000 meters were hosted by paid watchers, the percentage works out to less than 2.5 per cent on a national scale. Can this small a manipulation result is any massive cheating of advertisers?
Three, since advertisers focus on the high-income segments, how come money spent in slums – which BARC surely will give data on – will carry such weight in their advertising decisions? Advertisers look for high-value customers, not a consuming class focused on daily wage-goods.
Four, to say that a channel “bribed” potential viewers is actually not saying much. In the media business, large sums are paid in carriage fees to cable and dish operators to position their channels where they can be viewed and accessed easily by remotes. Moreover, media almost always subsidises viewers in order to attract advertisers. This includes newspapers. Channels extract only a fraction of the operational costs from subscriptions, and newspapers meet less than 20 per cent of their printing and publishing costs from the official cover price. This means readers and viewers are “bribed” to buy ultra-low-priced subscriptions, and it is advertisers who pay for the readership or viewership. In short, it suits advertisers to subsidise viewers. The point the Mumbai Police need to ask themselves is whether advertisers think they are being cheated or not, when they anyway pay a lot of money for “buying” viewership.
Five, it is not only TRPs that have been contested by rivals. In the past, newspaper publishers have questioned the results of readership and circulation figures, with those who did badly claiming the others must have cheated. In 2014, for example, many major newspaper groups rejected the findings of the Indian Readership Survey published in January 2014, alleging manipulation by some others.
Six, the Mumbai Police must also question the Shiv Sena, which has been demanding a ban on Republic TV, whether such threats also affect TRPs. If it is concerned about advertisers, a Sena-imposed curtailment of Republic TV viewership – if effective – also constitutes unfair suppression of TRPs. Why not question the party for this stand?
The real problem for both Arnab Goswami’s media rivals and politicians is that he has changed the rules of the game over the last decade. Starting first with Times Now, and now with his own channel, Republic TV, he has dominated the conversations around TV programming not necessarily through the quality of his work, but by putting himself at the centre of it all. The newsman has become the newsmaker.
This TRP and revenue model is inherently unstable, for Republic TV depends on one man for its survival and sustenance. At Times Now, the owners saw the danger is letting the anchor become the news, and (correctly) saw that the institution must always be above the individual.
But it is equally true that some personalities tower above their institutions, and institutions grow fast under him or her. Narendra Modi, M G Ramachandran, J Jayalalithaa, Balasaheb Thackeray, Mamata Banerjee, Mayawati, Naveen Patnaik and even Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi were personalities who towered above the parties they headed. As long as they are around, the institution grows and benefits; when they leave the scene, the institution has to begin rebuilding itself again.
Putting the individual above the institution is a double-edged sword: as long as the individual is at the helm, it benefits the institution; when he leaves, the institution needs another crutch or has to reinvent itself.
This is a dilemma for Arnab Goswami to solve, not the Mumbai Police. The latter has to answer a more basic question: why is it playing hand-maiden to its political masters and going after a media house that is part of the fourth estate, a protected institution in a democracy?
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