Despite being the industry’s preferred TV audience measurement system, the Peoplemeters project is now mired in controversy among its own stakeholders. Marylou Andrew investigates the causes.
Pakistanis are watching a lot of TV. According to Gallup Pakistan’s statistics, out of a population of 180 million, there are at least 124 million TV viewers. Across Pakistan, 20.7 million households own one or more TV sets and about 55% of them have access to cable. Hardly surprising then that advertisers spend the lion’s share of their media budgets on TV and that advertising spend on TV is valued at between Rs 18-20 billion, approximately 58-61% of the total media spend (Source: Aurora Fact File, FY 2010-11).
Television as a medium has come a long way since 2000 when there were only a handful of channels and ad spend was valued at a mere Rs 6.5 billion (Source: The Purple Book, 2004 edition). The step change occurred in 2003 when the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) liberalised the electronic media and granted a huge number of TV licenses, creating in one fell swoop a tremendous opportunity and a massive challenge which advertisers and broadcasters are still trying to come to grips with.
The complicated history of audience measurement in Pakistan
With the rapid increase in the number of TV channels, media planning also underwent a transformation. Advertisers, who once asked their planners which media would give them best mileage for their brands, were now asking which channel they should advertise on, who was watching which channel and when, and with all this came the demand for more sophisticated TV audience measurement (TAM) systems.
Audience measurement was first introduced to Pakistan by Gallup which issued the first ever TV ratings in 1981 based on the Diary system. As TV spends increased, high net worth advertisers along with their media buying houses argued that the Diary method (whereby people rely on memory and record everything they watch on TV in a ‘diary’) was not accurate enough, and began to lobby for an internationally used method of audience measurement, i.e. Peoplemeters.
In 2001, the Pakistan Advertisers Society (PAS) approached AC Nielsen (now Nielsen Pakistan) with a view of introducing Peoplemeters to Pakistan, but the project never got off the ground. In an interview with Aurora in 2005, Khalid Jamil Siddiqui, former Country Manager, AC Nielsen explained it was because AC Nielsen “lacked confidence in the market.”
In January 2005, PAS awarded the Peoplemeters contract to Kantar, but once again, the project did not materialise. Speaking to Aurora in November 2005, Sohail Ansar, CEO, Mindshare (now GroupM) hinted at unwillingness by clients to invest, saying that “payback period expectations are much shorter than they used to be.”
After this second failure, PAS decided to do things a bit differently and set up a joint industry committee known as the Audience Measurement Technical Committee with representation from the Pakistan Broadcasters Association (PBA), the Pakistan Advertising Association (now Advertising Association of Pakistan), Pak MediaCom (now Starcom Mediavest) and Mindshare. Several companies bid for the project, including TNS, IMRB and Kantar and Medialogic; the contract was eventually awarded to Medialogic.
Duraid Siddiqui, CEO, Eye Television Network (Hum TV) was part of the first joint industry committee and explains that the decision to select Medialogic was based on two major factors: the company offered the most satisfactory pricing, and more importantly, it was willing to invest without any guarantee of business coming from advertisers or broadcasters.
After the appointment, Oasis International was asked to carry out an Establishment Survey of 3,500 homes based on which the sample design (size, distribution and criteria for selection) for the Peoplemeter panel was determined. Based on two criteria – socio-economic classification (SEC) and cable status – 500 homes were selected in the three major metros and fitted with meters. Peoplemeters finally took off in Pakistan in September 2007.
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A year after the launch of Peoplemeters, Medialogic announced the extension of the panel to 700 homes in nine major cities covering a total of 3,700 people. This first (and only) expansion was funded by the PBA, and Medialogic then decided to provide ratings for only those channels which subscribed to the service. This led to a significant increase in the number of subscribers as the ratings were already used as a foundational tool for most major planning and buying decisions.
Gallup Pakistan, whose business was taking a severe hit due to the popularity of Peoplemeters also decided to increase the size of its Diary panel to 5,000 households, with 1,000 households in the rural areas. Although this should have been a major advantage, considering that Peoplemeters has no rural representation, it was perhaps a case of too little too late from Gallup.
Today, less than four years after the expansion of the Peoplemeters panel, most media planners, advertisers and broadcasters admit that planning, buying and even content creation for TV is almost solely based on the Peoplemeters ratings data. Some media planners still refer to the Gallup data, although many major advertisers and broadcasters told Aurora that they do not subscribe to the Diary anymore.
Thus the Peoplemeters data has become the industry currency (in other words, the means by which a channel’s popularity and advertising rates are determined), and such is the rat race for ratings that many channels will execute high level stunts to garner them. A recent example, was the ‘Mediagate’ scandal during which Dunya TV was accused of deliberately releasing the between-takes footage of a doctored interview between its anchors and Malik Riaz in order to secure higher ratings.
Yet, despite the growing dependency on Peoplemeters, opinions about the efficacy of the system remain mixed and criticism abounds about everything from the panel size and selection to the credibility of the data. As a result of these criticisms, the market is now full of rumours and half-truths and two of the key stakeholders, PAS and PBA, have refused to comment on the issue despite repeated approaches by Aurora.
Channeling the panel
The most prevalent criticism against the Peoplemeter system from practically all quarters regards the panel itself. There are two major points of contention.
The first relates to the size of the panel, which many say is not large enough to adequately represent TV audiences. Internationally accepted wisdom suggests that while the size of a Peoplemeter panel can be as large or small as agreed to by the local industry, a smaller panel means that the margin of error will not be as evenly distributed as it would be in a larger panel. The second area of contention is the distribution of the only the major cities and thereby fails to account for ethnic, provincial and especially rural diversity. Diversity is further compromised because the panel selection criteria have no demographic profiling, but merely depend on cable status and SEC. This is a major issue for regional channels which complain that they are unable to obtain accurate ratings because the panel is skewed towards the major cities.
Salman Danish Naseer, CEO, Medialogic, acknowledges this. “We only represent the 32 million people living in nine cities; we do not claim to represent the entire nation.”
So what exactly would a truly representative panel for Pakistan look like? An idea can be found in the November 2008 Audit Report of the Pakistan Peoplemeter TAM Service. (The audit was commissioned by PAS and conducted by Trevor Sharot of Red Research.) The Report recommended that a national urban design be drawn up to satisfy the needs of all parties.
It also concluded that the current sample was “adequate in size and distribution” and that expansion depended largely on the users of the data both in terms of “greater geographical coverage versus larger sampling of existing cities.” It further recommended that one more panel selection criteria be added along with cable status and SEC.
Roadblocks to panel expansion
Naseer agrees with the recommendations made in the Audit Report but points out that both quantitative and qualitative changes require money, and that while everyone involved would like a bigger panel, it doesn’t necessarily mean they are willing to pay for it.
Peoplemeters are currently paid for by broadcasters – 0.5% of a channel’s annual turnover – and advertisers – one percent of the company’s annual turnover – with individual payments capped at five million rupees. An increase in panel size would require that either the concerned parties share in the upfront cost with Medialogic (each meter currently costs Rs 150,000) or that they agree to an increase in the tariff. However, the issue is a bit more complicated. On the broadcasters’ side, the larger channels which are already getting decent ratings appear not to want an expansion, at least not one that covers smaller cities, and according to Siddiqui, “every time the panel is extended to a new town, the costs will increase. I don’t want them to go to those cities because my cost of research will be much higher.” The smaller channels, on the other hand, especially the regional ones, are particularly aggrieved by their low ratings and they believe that Medialogic needs to invest in its own business instead of constantly asking channels and advertisers to shell out money. As one representative of a regional channel commented, “we are already paying for the meters and the data.”
On the advertiser side, the message is uniform and clear – give us a greater degree of services and we will pay more.
Raza Ali Gorar, Head of Media, Mobilink says, “If we get more enhanced data from one source [Peoplemeters], we will not have to pay any of the other sources [customised research],” hinting therefore that the extra money would then be diverted to Medialogic.
However, unwillingness to pay for a larger panel is only one roadblock to expansion. The other, more serious issue is stakeholder consensus, because as Naseer puts it “there is still no single industry body that regulates TAM and we need such a body to take major decisions.”
Naseer has suggested the formation of a joint industry committee (JIC) to regulate the system, similar to the one that was created to bring Peoplemeters to Pakistan. Such a JIC would ideally have representation from PAS, PBA, media buying houses and agencies as well as major advertisers.
All the individuals who consented to be interviewed for this story agreed to the forming of a JIC in principle, yet the will required to make this happen was weak at best. In fact, Naseer is the only one actively pushing for a JIC.
Credibility issues and conspiracy theories
One of the major reasons that a JIC is unlikely to materialise in the near future is due to a serious trust deficit in Peoplemeters. The bulk of the controversy is related to two issues: erratic spikes and drops in ratings which have led people to believe that certain channels may be ‘buying’ the ratings; and the delay in the delivery of data (Medialogic delivers the data with a one day time lag) leading to the conclusion that it might be doctored.
According to Naseer, 90% of the controversies arise due to lack of knowledge, especially by producers, anchors and directors who don’t understand how the system works. In terms of spikes and drops, Naseer says that Medialogic always investigates such cases and has answers for those who have a query. Checking the data for accuracy, explains Naseer, is one of the reasons for the time lag in delivery. Another reason for the lag is because Medialogic waits to receive data from 80% of the panel before releasing it (the data is collected from homes via a mobile connection and the transmission is often interrupted by load shedding or a weak mobile signal).
However, not everyone is convinced.
According to Rizwan Merchant, COO, OMD, there is a three-day time lag in obtaining the data. He also questions what exactly Medialogic is checking given that the data is supposedly computerised, adding that “there should be no cleaning process.”
Beyond those issues which people are willing to discuss on the record, there is plenty of off the record comment. Although no one will give exact names and facts, many say that the panel is subject to tampering. Others contend that the reason the system remains largely unregulated is because it is in the interests of the larger media buying houses and agencies (which endorse a particular channel or group of channels) to keep it that way.
Naseer brushes off the controversy saying that because a lot of money is involved and the stakes are high, there will always be channels that are dissatisfied with the ratings.
If anything, he sees the dissatisfaction as a positive sign and proof that the ratings are accurate because “if the majority of broadcasters were happy with them, then that would raise a question mark.” In his view, despite the criticisms the market is generally satisfied and most people believe the system to be transparent.
“If they were not, it would be no big deal for them to invest Rs 100-150 million in another TAM set-up.”
Searching for a new TAM provider
If rumours are to be believed, introducing another TAM provider is precisely what the PAS is trying to do. An inside source says that the PAS has been talking to GroupM about such a possibility and Naseer confirms that he knows something is afoot. If this is the case and given that PAS was not only responsible for bringing in Medialogic but also for commissioning the audit which gave the company a clean bill of health, these moves are surprising to say the least. However, they would explain why the PAS has of late been unwilling to discuss the Peoplemeter project.
Whether or not a new TAM provider is introduced (and if history repeats itself, the process certainly won’t be easy), industry opinion about the need for competition in TV audience measurement systems remains highly polarised. Those in favour of a new set-up existing side-by- side with Medialogic say that it will help to create competition and end one company’s monopoly of the system.
Merchant is one of the proponents for a new TAM set-up because he believes “the overall ratings will improve; the industry currency will remain the same but we will have two evaluations for each media plan.”
Those who oppose a new TAM set-up provide equally convincing arguments. Apart from the overall increase in cost as a result of paying two TAM operators, they say that the competition will result in chaos with broadcasters using whichever ratings suit them best.
Ali A. Rizvi, COO, Interflow Communications says that instead of throwing away the old system, “let’s fix it and move on, and then let’s invest in audience measurement for radio where there is potential but no direction.”
The future of TAM in Pakistan
How matters will pan out remains unclear at this point, although one thing is obvious: the current Peoplemeters system needs to make some important changes and improvements to revive support and confidence in its stakeholders. Merchant and Gorar believe that a second audit needs to be commissioned immediately in order to remove questions and suspicions, although as to who would commission this audit in the absence of the PAS endorsement is a question mark.
Naseer says that the panel needs to be extended to at least 1,000 homes for it to be nationally representative (and to give TV channels a bit more confidence in the ratings) but he refuses to give a timeline because “it is an industry decision” but he hopes to have a solution to the problem “by next year”.
For the time being, however, the industry seems bent on shooting itself in the foot; all the major stakeholders have some sort of gripe or suggestion for improvement, yet they seem unwilling to make the necessary commitment and talk to one another to determine viable solutions to improve the system. Considering how difficult it was to establish the Peoplemeters system in the first place, the industry owes itself (and not to mention TV audiences in general) the courtesy of rising above its suspicions and complaints and engaging in a mature conversation about the only medium in Pakistan that has a standardised system of research and audience measurement in place.
First published in the July-August 2012 issue of Aurora.