Murky business: How news channels manipulate ratings
A press conference by Mumbai police brings big news channels under the radar for alleged manipulation of TRPs
On 8 October, Mumbai police chief Parambir Singh claimed to have busted a major TRP manipulation racket in the city. During the press conference, Singh called out Republic TV as one of the biggest names involved in the scam. However, what Mumbai Police Commissioner selectively missed to address during the press conference was the name of another big channel — India Today, which was also mentioned in the FIR filed by Mumbai police as well as in the report made by the audit team of Hansa research group, who intimated cops about the scam.
After the press conference, anchors and reporters of other news channels, including India Today, went all out against Republic TV and even called it out as a ‘TRP chor.’ Despite having the name of India Today in the police FIR, Mumbai police chief didn’t bother to mention its name and selectively targeted Republic TV. Why he did that can be a reason only known to him and Mumbai police, but this has definitely raised eyebrows on the conduct of Mumbai police in this case.
Beside India Today and Republic, the other two channels whose names were mentioned in the FIR and remand report, were identified as Fakt Marathi and Box Cinema. Mumbai police claimed that Republic TV, Fakt Marathi and Box Cinema paid money to homeowners in whose houses barometers were installed, in order to “manipulate” the ratings by keeping their televisions tuned to the particular channel.
Homeowners, called ‘Panel members’, were paid Rs 400-500 per month, the police alleged. Interestingly, when it was revealed late in the evening that the name of India Today was also mentioned in the FIR, a message of Mumbai police started circulating in Whatsapp group of journalists. The message states,”In the FIR, the name of India Today is mentioned, however, it is not substantiated by any of the accused or witnesses. On the contrary, the accused and witnesses are specifically mentioning the names of Republic TV, Fakt Marathi and Box Cinema. Thorough investigations are going on.”
Let’s understand this case in a chronological order as per the FIR and remand report.
On 6 October, an FIR was filed with Kandivali police station. The complainant in the case was Nitin Deokar, 55, who was the deputy general manager with Hansa Research group Pvt Ltd, a research company contracted by Broadcast Audience Research Council for the maintenance of 30,000 barometers across the country.
Deokar filed a complaint against Hansa’s relationship manager Vishal Bhandari. Deokar in his statement said that on 6 October he was informed by a police official that they had arrested Bhandari from his residence at Chincholi area of Malad (West). During police inquiry, Bhandari informed that to increase the TRP of India Today and several other channels he used to instigate and offer money to the members of Panel homes where barometers were installed.
Deokar mentioned in his statement that Hansa is a research company which installs and maintains the BARC barometer and the said work is done by employees of the rank of relationship managers (RM). The job of RM is not only limited to installation and maintenance but they are also entrusted with the job to create awareness among the members of Panel homes to avoid people with malicious intentions who intent to bribe them to increase the viewership of their respective channels in turn to increase their TRP which finally results in economic benefits of the channels. Increased TRP ratings increase advertisement revenues, therefore some people indulge in manipulating of viewership by paying money to Panel homes.
Deokar stated that he discovered the mainpulations done by Bhandari during a routine audit visit at the latter’s home in Malad.The audit visit was made on 11 June in order to understand the viewership pattern.”During the discussion with Panel home members, we came to know that their son Vishal Bhandari was working with Hansa research group. Also, the audit team has found another meter lying in their residence.”
On 17 June, Bhandari was called to the BARC office in Parel. He was questioned there by the operations manager of Hansa group and the vigilance team of BARC. During the inquiry, Bhandari informed that in November 2019, he received a call from one Vinay Tripathi who asked him to approach five Panel homes in Mumbai and asked them to watch India Today television for two hours daily. Tripathi once met Bhandari at Malad Railway station and gave him Rs 1,000 for distribution among five Panel homes ( Rs 200 per family) and Rs 5,000 as ‘commission’ to conduct the malpractice.
Bhandari informed during the inquiry that he continued doing the malpractice from November 2019 to May 2020. He approached five Panel homes and asked them to watch some channels daily for two hours. He also also used to get calls from different numbers and used to meet different people at Malad railway station in order to receive money.
After the inquiry was conducted, the audit team visited the home of Tejal Solanki, one of the Panel members in Kandivali (West) for further inquiry. During inquiry, Solanki informed that Bhandari gave money to her family to watch India Today for two hours.
Deokar further stated,”The accused person and his accomplices have been distributing money to some of the Panel homes in lieu of watching certain channels. They have been visiting households and tried to influence them and created hindrance in the working of the company. They also showed the Panel homes to a third party which is a clear-cut breach of non-disclosure agreement that they have signed with the company. It is a breach of trust with Hansa Research where a database provided to accused Vishal Bhandari was shared and sold by him to unknown persons.”
Beside Solanki, the other four Panel homes members were identified as Ved Bhandari (Vishal’s father), a resident of Malad (west), Neeta Sangoi, Sagar Kanabar, both residents of Kandivali (West) and Adarsh Shukla, a resident of Borivali (West).
Newslaundry went to meet these Panel members at their respective residences but was not allowed to meet them by the sleuths of Mumbai police station outside their residences. Sandeep Patil, a cop stationed outside the building of Tejal Solanki and Sagar Kanabar in Kandivali (West) said, “We have orders from above that the press is not allowed to meet the Panel homes members. We have to follow the orders of our seniors.”
However, we managed to meet and spoke to Adarsh Shukla and his father Sanjay Shukla in the slums of Dashrath Nagar compound in Borivali.
Sanjay Shukla, who works as a driver said, “In November 2019, a person by the name of Vishal Bhandari came to our house to install a barometer. I was not at home at that time so he met my son. He told him that he will give Rs 400 to install the barometer at our house and will pay Rs 200 extra for watching Box Cinema channel for two hours daily. He was transfering that amount into the bank account of my son. We didn’t know that this would turn out into such a mess otherwise I wouldn’t have let that barometer be installed in my house. For the last 3-4 months our TV is also not working. This thing became unnecessary tension for us.”
Adarsh Shukla, 17, said,”I was told by Vishal Bhandari to watch Box Cinema for two hours daily. He asked me to do this in November 2019 and transferred money into my account till April. But from the last 3-4 months he has not been in contact.”
Till now Mumbai police have arrested four accused in the matter who were identified as Vishal Bhandari, 21, Bompelli Rao Mistri, 44, Shirish Pattanshetty, 44, and Narayan Sharma, 47. Other accused including Vinay Tripathi, Dinesh Vishwakarma and a person by the name of Rocky are absconding. The matter is being investigated by the Crime Branch of Mumbai police.
According to a remand report produced in court, Vinay Tripathi contacted Vishal Bhandari in November 2019 and asked him to make at least five Panel homes in Mumbai watch India Today channel for two hours a day. Tripathi paid Rs 5,000 as commision to Bhandari along with Rs 1,000 to distribute among the five Panel homes. Bhandari carried out this fraud from November 2019 to May 2019 and asked Tejal Solanki and other Panel house members to watch India Today.
Similarly, Bhandari was paid Rs 20,000 per month by Bomepalli Rao Mistri who used to ask him to make 8-10 Panel houses watch Box Cinema and Fakt Marathi for maximum time in a day. He was asked to distribute Rs 400-500 to each panel house from the amount given to him and was allowed to keep the remaining amount. Likewise, a person by the name of Rocky used to ask Bhandari to distribute money to Panel houses in order to watch Republic channel for the maximum time period.
It is mentioned in the remand report that to increase the viewership of Republic TV, Fakt Marathi and Box Cinema, Mistri used to get the money from Shirish Pattanshetty and Narayan Sharma. They used to give him the money and he in turn used to give the money to Bhandari who used to distribute it in sample homes in order to watch the channel for two hours a day.
When Newslaundry met Milind Bharambe, Joint Commissioner of Police (Crime) at his office, he said,”India Today’s name appeared in the audit report of Hansa and that’s why it appeared in the FIR. But later panel homes members denied it; one even appeared on television (Tejal Solanki). As of now its name has not surfaced in our investigation. Only the name of Republic, Box Cinema and Fakt Marathi has appeared.
When asked how many Panels homes out of five took the name of Republic, he said, “They denied the names of both channels Republic and India Today and have also said that they have not taken any money to put the channel on their television sets.”
(Cover: Representational Image//Credit: Getty)