Misguided by data

By: Nazir Leghari
Published: July 11, 2016
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Who directs and dictates the narrative on Pakistan’s electronic media?

The general impression is that the owners of the leading private channels are the ones who decide what goes on the cable and what doesn’t make the cut.

Many others believe that the government has the power to drive the agenda through its regulator — the Pakistan Electronic Media Authority (Pemra) — or the billions worth of advertisement budget. And then there is a small section of society that speculates about the dominant role of the invisible state in dictating the narrative.

These impressions and speculations may carry partial weight, but they all miss the bull’s eye. The mighty trendsetter of the narrative on Pakistan’s electronic media is neither the owner nor the government or the invisible arms of the state. This little-noticed giant, dictating the electronic media narrative, is the rating agency — Medialogic and its foreign partner Kantar.

How Medialogic-Kantar dictate the narrative?

We don’t need rocket science to understand the way they operate and shape the narrative. The rating agency does so by giving high ratings to the content it wants to declare number one in any given slot. According to Medialogic, its “data today forms the basis of media decisions taken by broadcasters, advertisers and media agencies across Pakistan.”

This means that it is the ratings that bring in the money and motivate channel owners to create a particular kind of content which grabs eyes-balls according to the parameters set by Medialogic.

But what if the rating agency’s data is flawed?

That means that advertisers are betting on the wrong programmes. Channel owners are making wrong decisions about content production. And viewers are being forced to watch content that is not their first choice.

This raises another question; how can Medialogic — the market kingmaker — be so terribly wrong in its ratings despite being assisted by a foreign group? Why do the Medialogic ratings fail to reflect the television-watching habits of any sizeable number of Pakistanis? Let me explain how.

According to Medialogic, its ratings are based on data collected from 20 cities, which in total have a sample size of some 1,000-plus households. In this slim sample-size, Karachi enjoys the lion’s share. According to Medialogic insiders, even out of these 1,000-plus households, many meters remain non-functional for technical reasons.

Already many media stalwarts, opinion-makers and concerned citizens question Pakistan’s television rating system — mainly because of the small number of households covered by the rating agency. In no way does this small sample size reflect the Pakistani television viewers’ preferences.

Internationally, this kind of data is collected through the ‘Direct-To-Home’ (DTH) system, which not only offers prompt statistics but also reflects the near-correct preferences of viewers. But Pakistan has no DTH provider. However, recently Pemra — as guided by the India-friendly government and family of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif — planned to give the DTH device-making licence to an Indian company. This would allow the manufacturer and the country of its origin, India, to manipulate the narrative game. But perhaps this scandal is for some other time.

Getting back to the Medialogic-Kantar rating system — launched near the end of 2014 when the meter base was expanded to 1,000-plus from 600-plus — which only offers highly flawed numbers in the name of ‘scientific and transparent data’. The rating agency’s sample is non-representative. There are 1,600 cable operators in Pakistan, providing services to millions of viewers. The current rating system is dependent on just 1,000 boxes across the country. Even if all are working 24/7 — which is not the case — they do not cover all the cable operators. This gives a limited, inaccurate and unsubstantial representation of the cumulative viewership patterns.

Flawed technology

Medialogic uses voice-matching technology to mark which channel is being viewed in a household. This method of recognition falters in various scenarios, especially if the same content is aired by a number of channels simultaneously — for instance, the PM’s speech, a live press conference or even paid content and advertisements — and makes it difficult to differentiate between one channel and the other. Similarly, Medialogic and its partner fail to provide the statistics of this small sample of viewers on a real-time basis.

According to a senior official of a leading channel, they get ratings from Medialogic after a lag of at least 24 to 48 hours. The official also said that DTH could get “real time data, but not this rating system”.

In this technology-driven age, the delay in providing statistics raises a big question mark about the efficiency of this system. This delay hurts channels, advertisers and viewers.

It also leaves room for manipulation of the narrative, which can prove to be a make-or-break issue for a country in this era of instant communication and information overload.

“It is of utmost importance that the great deception in the name of TV ratings be exposed and corrected so that genuine content and viewership pattern can take the front seat”

Unethical practices

Medialogic calls its system transparent and media stakeholders are forced to buy this story in the absence of poor government regulation and lack of a viable alternative. But the fact is that the rating agency’s data is being manipulated to ensure that certain trends dominate the electronic media. According to company insiders, the carefully crafted ratings game ensures ‘A’, ‘B’, and ‘C’ grade stakeholders are happy according to their size in one time slot or the other. At the same time, this ratings game promotes a particular type of content as decided by the rating agency and its foreign associates.

Media stakeholders do have knowledge of this deception, but they are afraid of upsetting the applecart because they fear losing advertising revenue by provoking the rating agency and its allied select media houses.

The viewers suffer because certain viewership patterns are being enforced on them as channels are coaxed to air particular kinds of programmes which they believe will get them good ratings, even though they may not be genuinely popular.

How do we address this issue?

First and foremost, the sample size should be increased to reflect true viewership preferences. As per experts, a rating agency should have a sample size of at least 4,000 households in a country like Pakistan to get the pulse of the viewers. This sample size will ensure that at least a couple of clients of each cable operator are available for monitoring.

Second, instead of using voice-matching  technology, the rating agency should use graphic or logo-matching technology to ensure the authenticity of its results.

Third, to be able to account for family members, rather than using the current system of pressing a remote button to show who is watching what, a login portal or an app should be used to ensure we are getting authentic data of a person’s  viewership pattern.

Most importantly, the ownership of the credit rating company should be 100 percent Pakistani to ensure that our narrative is not being influenced or hijacked from foreign lands. It is of utmost importance that this great deception in the name of TV ratings be exposed and corrected so that genuine content and viewer- ship pattern can take the front seat.



About the Author
Nazir Leghari
has been the editor of several renowned Urdu-language newspapers and is regarded as a thorough professional who is dedicated to his calling.