Times Now is way ahead, but analysis shows that the ‘national ratings’ of TV channels are not really national.

We analysed English news TRPs for the Indrani story here is what we foundImage: Wikipedia commons, Twitter and Facebook accounts
Flix Friday, September 11, 2015 - 19:46

Over the past fortnight, as the Sheena Bora murder hit the airwaves, there has been a raging debate not just on social media but even on several legacy media platforms over whether television news channels have gone overboard by obsessing over this case. For long, sensational crime stories, considered the domain of Hindi news channels to increase viewership have become kosher on English news too. But as many of us outraged at sensationalism of the news channels, what did most of the English audience watch? Were all of us turned off by the obsession?

A cursory look at the ratings of TV channels like Times Now and Ind­ia Today shows that the Sheena Bora murder case revived a sagging news viewership curve, helping bring back spikes that bring joy to the hearts of channel heads. The crests and troughs of Times Now and India Today are distinctly different. Through the week when the murder was the top story, Times Now was far ahead of all the other channels in the fray cornering about 46% of the market share as per BARC data and 38% as per TAM data. India Today got 12% and 19% of the market share respectively. India Today had initially overtaken Times Now as the most watched channel on the latter’s home turf during two big news breaks – the Patel agitation for reservation in Gujarat and the Sheena Bora case, before Times Now reversed the trend. 

Times Now, the only Mumbai-based channel where the case is being investigated, had drawn considerable flak on social media for their relentless paparazzi kind of pursuit of any scrap of information to report. But it’s a strategy that seems to have paid rich dividends in ratings.

There is little doubt that ratings are the wind under every news channel’s sails. TV editors across board are under daily pressure to ensure more spikes per week. But do the ratings mean that murky murder mysteries with more speculation and intrigue than proven facts are what audiences want to see on news channels? Should they hog more air-time at the cost of serious (albeit far more visually boring) stories on the state of economy, governance or even civic issues?

Look at the trends closely.

Over the past month, between August 12 and September 8, BARC’s data shows that across India, Times Now and India Today had big spikes during the August 12 debate in the Lok Sabha when Sushma Swaraj mounted a fiery defence of her role in the Lalit Modi case.

A bigger spike occurred on August 15, when there was widespread speculation over PM Narendra Modi’s Independence day speech, in the wake of mounting One Rank One Pension agitation. In fact, in the initial days of the Sheena murder probe between 25-27 August, data suggests interest across India was pretty tepid. But over subsequent days, Times Now rode on a surge of interest, to become the channel people watched for developments on this case (some of which proved later to be merely wild speculations). The One-Rank-One-Pension discussions appear to have literally gotten swallowed by the juicier story nationally, though it is plausible that it could have contributed to the steady rise in overall news viewership. Since the period overlap, it is difficult to be more conclusive.

What is more interesting is to look at the city-wise data available with The News Minute. Mumbai emerges as the only city (and understandably so) curious about the Sheena Bora case.

However, even in Mumbai, more viewers tuned in to the Sushma-Rahul debate on August 12 than on any day dominated by the Sheena case.

The audience in the national capital Delhi, doesn’t seem to have been impressed much by the Sheena Bora case. The ratings for Times Now from this city are mere molehills compared to striking flourishes in Mumbai. Politics seem to be Delhi’s clear preference over a sensational murder case.  But what does look like a clear spike for NDTV in its ratings is in Delhi, taking their overall ratings up. NDTV has largely stayed out of continuous breathless reporting of the Sheena Bora case, focusing on political reportage like the OROP, RSS meetings. Delhi is also the only market where channels like CNN-IBN, News X and NDTV appear to have evident spikes that differentiate them from each other on viewership graphs.

But the most interesting data mined by BARC, are the viewing trends across Bengaluru, which marches to a tune vastly different from Delhi and Mumbai. A regional English news channel, News9, hardly known to anyone outside the city, is proving to be the local favourite beating all the national players hands down, across weeks. Around the time that the national channels were focussing on the breakdown of NSA level talks between India and Pakistan and building up to polls in Bihar, Bangaloreans tuned in into News9 to follow the local municipal level elections and the developments following the murder of Prof.Kalburgi. Both were stories covered by all national channels, but News9 had monopoly of viewership across Bengaluru.

Bengaluru’s news preference and Delhi’s lack of interest in the Sheena Bora murder case are in stark contrast to what appears to be ‘national’ preferences shown by the same ratings.

When asked about the Bangalore aberration, several leading news channels dismissed it as ‘not really among our focus markets’, which could mean that their current strategy is to play to their strengths across markets that prefer the diet they have set.

Several editors say off record that the ratings game is influenced by how deep run the pockets, which conversely gets deeper with advertising revenue pouring in based on ratings, making it a vicious cycle.

In print, there are regional edition with national news often turning the second headline. However, since TV news channels can't really have regional versions due to absence of local affiliates, it would appear stories like the Sheena Bora murder case, politics and India-Pakistan stories are part of a very lean cross-section of subjects that can help build a one-bulletin-for-India model.

Sensationalising stories, even broadcasting speculations or unconfirmed reports are the quick fix formula to grab and sustain eyeballs in a 24-hour news wheel. But the truth, as ratings also reaffirm, is that national ratings are not really reflective of what nation wants to watch because viewer interest is also largely regional.

So next time, you wonder why are channels focussing more time on stories that you aren’t keen on, you know what the rationale is!