The return of Indian Readership Survey numbers has met with a silent response. Does it mean that the feud over IRS will continue?After almost two years without any readership numbers, nobody appears to be happy to see them back. There were no hoops of joy from publishers or advertisers when the Media Research Users Council (MRUC), which owns the Indian Readership Survey (IRS), lifted the abeyance on the data on August 20.
The heads of four major industry bodies - the Indian Newspaper Society, Audit Bureau of Circulations, Readership Studies Council of India and MRUC - made this decision after an extensive revalidation process cleared the data. The announcement has been largely greeted with silence by the publishing industry.
This is in complete contrast to what happened in January this year. When the newly-rehauled IRS 2013 was released, the clamour from publishers was something to behold. They were angry with the results, which were at odds with those from the past years. More so because the total readership figure had gone down from 353 million to 281 million.
The Indian Newspaper Society sent out advertisements, press releases and articles in the papers owned by its powerful roster of members such as The Times of India, Anandabazar Patrika and Dainik Bhaskar among others, denouncing IRS 2013.
This silence then doesn't bode well for IRS 2013. Is the feud over IRS going to continue? If it does, it could have disastrous consequences for the Rs 24,300-crore Indian print industry, which is already growing below the industry average. After a gut-wrenching slowdown that lasted over two years, advertising is set to see double-digit growth this year. At a time like this, why will publishers want to talk to advertisers with 20-month-old metrics?
The IRS is one of the key metrics used to buy and sell advertising space in newspapers and magazines. MRUC was set up in 1994 with members drawn from all categories of users - advertisers, media agencies, publishers, broadcasters and other media owners.
In response to complaints, MRUC joined hands with the Audit Bureau of Circulations in 2009 to form the Readership Studies Council of India. In 2012, Nielsen India got the mandate to do the study. The new IRS, covering 235,000 people, uses double-screen, computer-aided personal interviewing, geo-tagging and high-level security to reduce errors.
In January this year, MRUC released the results. It had upsets across, states, languages, cities and several anomalies. The Hindu Business Line, a Chennai-based newspaper had more readers in Manipur than in Chennai. Rajasthan Patrika was ahead of Dainik Bhaskar in the latter's home state of Madhya Pradesh.
In Uttar Pradesh, a Dainik Jagran stronghold, Hindustan had huge gains. MRUC usage terms explained that IRS 2013 could not be compared to any of the old surveys because the methodology and census on which it was based (2011 instead of 2001) were completely different. It warned against cherry-picking data. But publishers did not follow the instructions. Instead, they demanded the data be withdrawn.
DB Corporation, publishers of Dainik Bhaskar, got a stay order on the data from the Gwalior High Court. The data was held in abeyance to start a revalidation exercise. Later, the Mumbai High Court allowed HT Media to use the data for marketing.
The revalidation committee, consisting of over 13 members, many of them publishers such as The Hindu, Times of India and Malayala Manorama among others, commissioned Praveen Tripathi of Magic 9 Media, an expert on large-scale media consumption studies, to audit IRS 2013. In the first stage, it checked the process. Then it ran back checks, especially in states and towns that had come up with irregular results. The audit eventually ended up covering more than half the sample in the revalidation process.
While some anomalies crept in simply because interviewers were trying to hurry the process, the methodology was fine and the data had not been tweaked, the report says. For example, a reader in Manipur who read The Hindu Business Line lived in Chennai and this got projected on the Manipur sample.
Much of this then points to the one big miss by MRUC. It could have ironed out the data over another cycle and done workshops with publisher members to help them adjust to a new process and methodology after 17 years of the old IRS. Paritosh Joshi, the chairman of the IRS technical committee, points to the other big lesson from this fracas.
"We should have a mechanism to handle disputes," he says. While there is an arbitration clause in the subscription agreement, it needs to be broad-based, so that a single brand's need to be on top of a list does not derail the metric, which is a common good, says Joshi. The whole point of a joint industry body is that it is a social contract for common good.
That, however, is not how many publishers feel. A member of the revalidating committee says publishers might be regrouping to figure out their legal options. Many refused to comment. "I would respect this [the clean chit for IRS 2013] for the cause of the industry," says D D Purkayastha, CEO, ABP Limited. And that, frankly, should be the spirit of the industry. The head of all the four major industry bodies have cleared it. It is time to get on with business.
(Disclosure: Akila Urankar, president, Business Standard Ltd, was a co-chair of the revalidation committee)