Explainer: BARC audit report shows employees colluded to change channel ratings

The BARC report, which is part of the Mumbai police's chargesheet in the TRP scam probe, has also sparked a war of words between television channels.
Television news channel representative image
Television news channel representative image

Last week, an audit report of the Broadcast Audience Research Council was submitted by the Mumbai police to a Mumbai court as part of its investigation in the Television Rating Points (TRP) scam, in which multiple television channels, including Republic TV, have been named. The report states that television viewership ratings were changed from 2016 to 2019 to favour certain channels. The BARC audit report, dated July 24 2020, has also named at least five former employees of their own organisation, and has said that the manipulation was evidenced in 2017, 2018, and 2019 across channels of the English news genre and Telugu news genre. 

To measure target rating points, BARC puts up barometres in households across the country, and the location of these barometres are confidential and are rotated every year. BARC has stated in the audit report that some households were seen to report incorrect data and such households are marked as ‘outliers,’ which refers to homes that portray highly suspicious data. Any discrepancy is marked by BARC, and if the home continues to show incorrect data, then TRP from that household is not counted. BARC in its audit report has said that in some cases, for some channels, this outlier data was also used to change rating levels.

“We had seen evidence of multiple re-runs to get the desired outcome, adding that outliers were removed or added back to change the ratings,” the BARC audit report said.

The audit report names former BARC CEO Partho Dasgupta; COO Romil Ramgarhia; Head of Products/South Venkat Sujit Samrat; Head of West Rushabh Mehta; Vice President, Strategy, Pekham Basu and Chief People Officer and Strategy, Manasi Kumar (the HR head). 

The report says that during a forensic analysis, specific evidence relating to rating manipulation of Times Now and Republic TV were found and that there is a suspicion that ratings were pre-decided by Romil Ramgarhia. Panels (households where BARC barometres have been put up) of a specific channel were also removed to bring down viewership of Times Now. The audit report attaches instances where impressions of Times Now were “decreased drastically” which resulted in Republic TV ratings “going above” Times Now. 

A mail exchange between BARC employees states, “English news has some ranking issues. I have put Times Now under control on all Tuesdays — this should bring it below Republic TV. Let’s see after re-run.”

Based on this, Times Network, under which Times Now operates, said it is contemplating all possible legal actions against BARC for its “unacceptable and unpardonable" failure to act on complaints of large-scale manipulation of TRPs to favour Republic TV. Republic has, however, denied this allegation and has accused Times Now of spiking its landing pages (the channel displayed by default on a television screen when it is switched on). According to Republic, this was exposed only after the outlier policy, to discard dubious numbers, were brought in.

The two channels have been at war of words over this portion of the report.

The BARC audit report also attaches screenshots of SMS conversations between BARC employees, where they discuss changing the rankings of certain channels. Aaj Tak and ABP News are among the channels mentioned in these SMS conversations.

The BARC audit report says that the “manipulation was evidenced in 2017, ‘18, and ‘19 across English News Genre and Telugu News Genre. Evidence indicated favouritism shown to few channels. In some cases, we suspect that the ratings were pre-decided.”

The report contains instances of email exchanges accessed from the named employees of BARC, and that , “Venkat Sujit requests to change the ratings of TVS Kannada, NTV, ABN TVS Telugu, AP 24x7, I News. This indicates rampant manipulation of ratings,” the BARC audit report also says. 

BARC also said it has seen a “process manipulation” wherein some channels were added in metrics prematurely, in the middle of the week, or the channels' rating was reported before the pre-decided cooling period after its launch.

“Evidence also shows the intent to change the high viewing panel homes (where barometres have been set up) to curtail the ratings,” the report adds. Panel homes are households where barometres are installed by BARC to measure television viewing points. Here, high viewing panel homes mean households where higher impressions for the channels were recorded. 

Citing Partho's exchanges with several of his colleagues at BARC, the report states, “We can conclude that Mr Partho Dasgupta was aware of the manipulation of the ratings and violation of the processes that was happening in BARC during his stint as CEO. We can also infer that he may be directly involved in these mala-fide actions.”

“Even though Mr Partho Dasgupta is expected to be the custodian of governance and ethics as he was the CEO, we can deduce that he overlooked this factor. We have reasonable evidence to conclude that Mr. Partho Dasgupta aided the breakdown of governance and ethics in BARC, which had resulted in brand erosion in the market,” the report adds. 

Partho ‘confessed’ Arnab paid him: Report

As per a report by the Indian Express, Partho Dasgupta has claimed in a handwritten statement to the Mumbai police that he received 12,000 USD from Arnab Goswami over three years for two holidays; and a total amount of Rs 40 lakh in three instalments; in exchange for manipulating TRPs in favour of his news channel. The Indian Express report has accessed this confessional statement which is a part of the supplementary chargesheet filed in the TRP scam. 

However, Partho’s counsel has told the paper that they have denied this allegation, alleging that it was “recorded under duress.”

On Tuesday, Republic sent a legal notice to Indian Express, calling the story "false and misleading" and has sought an apology from the newspaper.  

Republic denies charges, lashes out at Congress, Times Now

The Republic Media Network, meanwhile, has issued a lengthy statement denying allegations of TRP manipulation, and accused rival TV channel Times Now of manipulating TRPs, suppressing facts and misleading the public on the alleged TRP scam. Republic said there has been collusion of corporate and political interests to target Editor-in-Chief Arnab Goswami.

In the statement, Republic also hits out at the Congress over its allegations that the purported WhatsApp chats between Arnab Goswami and Partho Dasgupta, which also form a part of the Mumbai police’s chargesheet, point to breach of national security and violations of the Official Secrets Act, and claimed that the party was peddling "falsehoods".

“The validity, veracity and genuineness of the purported WhatsApp chats are still to be tested in the courts of law, but even keeping that aside for a moment, there is not one line, suggestion or shred of evidence in the chats which contain any wrongdoing or TRP manipulation by the Republic Media Network,” the statement said.

The Congress had last week demanded a joint parliamentary committee (JPC) probe into the purported WhatsApp chats of Goswami for breach of national security and violations of the Official Secrets Act and booking those involved.

The Republic Media Network also called upon the Competition Commission of India to probe the existence of "collusion and cartelization" in the media industry "which is selectively targeting Goswami.”

"The Congress which cannot get over its own infighting has peddled lies and falsehoods against us, accusing us of leaking official secrets, when the truth is that the possibility of airstrikes was a much-discussed topic in the public domain, much before the strikes actually took place," it said.

Corrigendum: A section in the article said that the BARC Audit report came to a conclusion on the basis of Partho Dasgupta's exchanges with Arnab Goswami. This was an error. The conclusion was based on several exchanges between Partho Dasgupta and several people in BARC and three emails he sent Arnab Goswami before the launch of Republic TV. The error is regretted.

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